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Older Than Your Elders

June 23, 2011

Age is a funny thing, provided you have a dark sense of humour.

It’s a common and probably true observation that years feel shorter the older you are. Seems logical; when you’re a year old one more year is another lifetime, when you turn ten it’s already dropped to 10%, at twenty 5% and so on. So far old news.

Time is often intuitively understood as a measure of change. This makes it a bit interesting when you consider the concept of accelerating change, the idea that technological, social and cultural change occurs at an ever-increasing pace. This too is easy to understand. For each of those domains, every innovation makes larger the array of tools new innovations are made with. And together they have quite the synergy. Technological advances such as phones and the internet makes cultural and societal change faster and sometimes even possible at all.

It’s kind of a weak example, since I doubt 15th century scientists sat around twiddling their thumbs waiting for letters from other thinkers. But you get the idea.

If we could find some abstract step that would denote a certain amount of change in a field, we would probably see each step coming closer together, in a neat parallel to how one’s birthdays seem to grow ever closer to each other. Seen from the other way around, each decade becomes longer, since more innovation can fit into each.

The most concrete example of this acceleration of change is of course Moore’s law. It states that the amount of transistors that can fit into a given area doubles roughly every two years. Sometimes you hear every eighteen months, but the idea stays the same, that the improvements are not linear but exponential. He made this observation 1965 and predicted the trend to continue for at least ten more years, which is what people still say.

Because amount of transistors for a long time correlated rather nicely to processing speed, it made sense to make a variation of the law, stating that the amount of processing power one could get for, say, $100 would double every two years, which I personally feel is a much better way of thinking about it. Especially since brute force has become less and less important in favour of smart allocation of computational resources.

This idea of accelerating change is the main thrust of concept of the technological singularity, which would be the point in time when we create a super-human intellect. Since we can only really predict the behaviour of someone equally or less smart than ourselves, we would no longer be able to predict anything about the future, provided this AI were to be employed in the service of creating an even more advanced AI.

It’s highly anecdotal, but I wonder if this is what I sensed during the 90s. Even then, it seemed to me that whereas the 70s and 80s had been fairly homogenous, the 90s felt like two five-year periods rather than a decade. This is of course a gross simplification and no doubt a product of my growing up in that time. It’s not like decades are discreet entities, but still I couldn’t shake the feeling that things happened too fast for the old paradigm.

The last piece of the long-winded puzzle before I reach my conclusion is this: Old people are slower to adopt to change than young people. Yeah, it’s a generalisation, but that doesn’t make it less true. The older you are, the more set in your ways you become. Someone growing up with the internet will never have to learn it intellectually, the same way you don’t have to learn the grammar for your native tongue to be able to speak it.

So changes happening faster and faster would make old people less and less able to keep up.

OK, I lied. Here is the last piece. It’s probably no accident that an euphemism for being old is being “experienced.” There seems to be some connection between the two. We tend to say that someone has “lived more” if they have seen or done more than we.

Applying the theory of accelerating change on culture, we can use that hypothetical yardstick of change I mumbled about earlier to mark out how many years each doubling takes. This is probably not possible, but I hope you get what I’m going for. If acceleration is at play, these marks would be closer and closer together on the timeline. Sooner or later, a doubling would occur twice in your lifetime, then thrice, then four times.

Is there then some limit to how much change we can take, even if young and adaptive? Probably. But before that point is reached, grown-ups would find themselves getting out of touch with the changes at a noticeably earlier point than their parents did. It would not make them completely unable to cope, but they would have to struggle more and more to keep up.

Eventually we reach an interesting tipping point, where a child of even the youngest parents would have successfully coped with more rate-doublings than its parents would have. That is, they would have experienced more. They would have seen more. They would have lived more. They would, in a way, be older than their parents. It would be a cultural singularity of sorts.

I find this whole thing rather intriguing and I find even more intriguing the question of whether or not this has already happened.

EDIT: I realised I made some stupid mistakes here. It’s all been taken care of. Go back to sleep.

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