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Eric Leuthardt M.D.

Why Is the World Changing So Fast?

The rate at which people exchange ideas drives social and technical revolutions.

When I was a kid I used to dig holes in the backyard for fun. Now I see children the same age as my hole-digging days navigating the web through wirelessly connected smart phones and getting weepy when their transfer rates are too slow. Beyond this underlining my age, it also speaks to the fact that life as we knew it back then was very different from what it is now. People often point to the current centenarians and contemplate the dramatic scope of how the world changed from the horse-and-buggy to the internet.

What if that type of change happened every ten years? Every five years? When we think back to the last thirty years the differences are in some ways no less stark. It is almost hard to imagine life with just a cord dependent telephone. And even today, things are continually accelerating in terms of technical capabilities. Why? When I ask friends, the common answer is Moore’s law. Namely, that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. If it was just Moore’s law that is at play we should just have really really good calculators. Increased computational power, doesn’t necessarily explain change. Just because we can compute faster, that doesn’t make us smarter, more creative, or alter our social perspectives. So why are innovations occurring more and more rapidly?

I would propose an alternate hypothesis that social and technical revolutions are exponentially proportional to the rate at which humans exchange information. I think we can map this trend out for the last two thousand years. In the first millennia, one’s great great (add eight more greats here) grandmother could experience the same level of technology and social interaction as that of their distant offspring. It wasn’t until Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440 that ever-faster rates of social and technical advances followed. With the dissemination of books in high volume, information and ideas could be organized and distributed in ways that literally took centuries to penetrate a population. It's unsurprising that during this time that we see the end of the Middle Ages and the accelerated transitions from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. Each of these shifts heralded exponential social and technical upheaval (e.g. the French Revolution and the steam engine). Central to these changes were the ability for humans to communicate ideas. Knowledge spread at an increasingly faster rate allowing for people to consolidate and advance new ideas, which in turn, led to still more novel ways in how we see and interact with the world. With the twentieth century, we see print taken to manufacturing scale, the creation of the telephone, and the new phenomenon of the radio and television. This brings us to the lives of our grandparents that we marvel at.

Now it’s our turn. I would posit the reason for the accelerating change is similar to why networked computers are so powerful. The more processing cores that you add the faster a given function can occur. Similarly, the more integrated that humans are able to exchange their thoughts, the more rapidly they will be able to accomplish novel insights. Different from Moore’s Law, which involves the compiling of logic units to perform more rapid analytic functions, increased communication, is the compiling of creative units (i.e. humans) to perform ever more inventive tasks. Today with the advent of the internet and wireless communication the time lag of transmission is near zero. Given these rapid timescales, we can expect the emergence of novel and world changing events to occur more and more frequently. Dramatic change will be the new norm for our lives in the future.

Leuthardt is also the author of the thriller novel RedDevil4.

Teaser Image: Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Leuthardt, M.D., is the director of the Center of Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology at Washington University School of Medicine, where he researches brain-computer interfaces.