Hartmunt Rosa has observed, in numerous essays and texts, that it is useful to analyze our age with a mental model built around acceleration. He finds that we accelerate along three different axes — technological, social and subjective — and that this acceleration has profound impact on the way we can live our lives.
It is, for example, hardly viable to have a life plan if you know that the world is changing so fast that you will have to change jobs four or five times over your active career. It also seems hard to innovate in a world where the future is a moving target and you are not sure how to invest your energies. Any intergenerational projects will seem vain and increasingly all of our thinking becomes intragenerational.
This will, among other things, make it harder for us to tackle long term problems like climate change since the future horizon we operate against is closing in on the present all the time.
Rosa’s model is compelling and probably resonates with most of us, but there are a couple of questions that we need to ask when we start to examine it closer.
First, it seems that any claim of acceleration needs to be qualified by a metric of some kind. What is it that is getting faster? And relative to what? If we only look at technology, we find that there are competing claims here: while a lot of voices will argue that things are changing faster than ever before, it is also true that a growing set of voices now claim that innovation has all but died down in the West (Thiel et al). So which is it? And by what metric?
Let’s first eliminate a few metrics that we know are quite useless. No-one should get away with measuring the speed of innovation by looking at the number of patents filed. This was always a noisy signal, but with the increase in defensive and performative patents (where the patent is filed to give the impression of great waves of innovation in official statistics from some countries) the signal is now almost completely useless.
The other set of metrics that should at least be viewed with suspicion are all metrics that have to do with the increase in a particular technology’s capacity. If we argue that we should be seeing speed reductions in, say, international flights, we assume that the pace of technology needs to be measured in relation to the individual technologies, not to how the change overall. This ignores things like the possibility to be connected to the Internet while flying, technical change that is related to but not confined to a specific technology.
Connectivity is interesting because it happens across the board, it is a “horizontal” innovation in the sense that it affects all technology across the technosphere. The improvements in an engine are vertical to that technology (even if the web of technologies related to an engine will be affected in different ways).
This raises the more complex question of if we should speak of the pace of innovation or if it is more accurate to speak of the pace of Innovation as the sum total of different innovation vectors. The latter is not easy to even approximate, however, and so we end up as lost as if we were asked what the pace of evolution is. This should not surprise us, since technology is closely connected to evolution in different ways and indeed can be described as a kind of evolving systems (See W Brian Arthur’s work).
What all of this means is that the notion of acceleration is not as clear as Rosa’s model seems to assume. Of the three kinds of acceleration he studies it is the third that is most clearly evident: the subjective feeling of acceleration and of things speeding up. Here it is without a doubt clear that many people seem to share a sense of increasing speed all around them. But could we find other causes for that?
One strong candidate that I feel Rosa should have looked closer at is complexity. Our world is increasingly connected and complexity is increasing. This can be perceived as acceleration, but is very different. Imagine that you are playing a tune. Now, acceleration would be asking you to play it faster. Complexification would be asking you to play a second and third melody at the same time.
So is the change we are experiencing more like be asked to play a tune faster or like being asked to play a fugue?
This matters when we start looking at the broader social consequences and how they play out.