The relative rate of change (Mental Models IV)

One of the things that we hear all the time is that everything is accelerating. It is the core theme of everyday commentary on politics, but also a seriously treated idea in the works of philosophers like Hartmut Rosa or Paul Virilio. This acceleration is described, at least in Rosa’s work, with dimensions of change, but not the rate of change. Just that it is accelerating. Virilio’s work is also focused on speed and he quickly takes it to the boundaries – like the speed of light.

But here is a thought. Isn’t the most interesting thing not speed or acceleration – but rather the relative rate of change?

Let’s take technology. When we say that technological change is accelerating it has to be accelerating relative to something, it has to be both catching up to something and leaving something behind. What that is will be much more revealing than the simple observation that it is gaining speed.

Even in analyzing technology we can ask if something is changing faster than something else and get interesting results. Take airplanes and phones. Which is accelerating the fastest, and has this been constant through-out the existence of these technologies? What does it mean when the phone evolves much faster than the plane? How do sociological patterns change and what are the second order effects?

Mobile phones evolve relative to other technology – and that is where the most salient insights are found.

Here is a thought – social change should not be modeled so much on the pace of technological change as the differential rates of change between different technologies, institutions and us humans.

This is not a new insight, of course, the notion of relative change being the central challenge is embedded in the well-known quote by E O Wilson where he suggests that our challenge is that “we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology“.

Any foresight work or scenario planning needs to take into account the relative rates of change of the incorporated variables and ideas. A few simple, coarse-grained examples.

Privacy evolves in the relative rate of change between the ease with which we reveal the human condition as data and our ability to set norms and legislation around how societies divide power over identity and safe-guard individual autonomy.

Free expression evolves in the relative rate of change between the ability of citizens everywhere to both produce and consume attention and the sum total social cognitive capacity that we have access to for deliberation and decision in our polities.

Our economy evolves in the relative rate of change between our technological advancement and our social adoption and organizational situation of those new capabilities.

The exercise then becomes this — look at the phenomenon you want to model in scenarios and suggest the relative rates of change between the relevant driving forces. Want to understand China? Look at the relative rate of change between the forces driving the evolution of China – the growth of the middle class and the re-centralization of political power (just two examples, could be anything). Want to understand the future of platforms? Look at the rate of change between new users adopting the platform the regulatory interventions applied to them (adoption slowing down, regulation speeding up). And so on.

There is more to say about this, and it has to do with what drives rates of change too — but more about this later, when I want to try to say a word about tempo and mode in evolution.

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