Accelerating change

Last weekend I attended the “Accelerating Change Conference” at Stanford, put on by the Accelerating Change Institute (ACI), a 501(c)3 with the sole purpose of facilitating—you guessed it—accelerating change. Accelerating change doesn’t just mean that things are changing faster, it means the rate of change itself is accelerating. The change rate is becoming exponential, and, according to some, we are at the elbow of a curve that will soon be going up very steeply.

A lot of the measures of accelerating are increases in metrics of technology, so an additional question is: does accelerating change apply to societal change too? Is the pace of personal and organizational change going faster and faster? Increasing exponentially? Are we in a future in which, as one of the chief proponents, Ray Kurzweil, claims, we’ll see as much change in the next 20 years as we saw in the whole previous century? Applied to cancer, could we see in two decades a century’s relative advance in scientific knowledge and techniques to use it?

The conference leaned strongly toward the presumption that accelerating change is a fact and that it’s time to get on with working out the implications. Kurzweil has been accumulating data for years he claims substantiates the idea. He would at least claim it is true for information technology, and he suggests it is beginning to happen in areas like biology and life science. His assertion has attracted the attention of some economists, and not all agree with him. Ilkka Tuomi, a Finnish writer, has even challenged the veracity of the widely accepted “Moore’s Law.” He and Kurzweil debated the matter at the conference. Kurzweil calls it the law of “appreciating returns,” a positive feedback loop with more begetting yet more. Tuomi challenges Kurzweil’s calculations and suggested he’s looking at data selectively and creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Kurzweil defends his conlusions. They didn’t settle their differences at the conference.

To grant that change is happening rapidly is nothing new, but to grant it the status as an historical law raises some significant questions. A “law” tends to have a sense of inevitability that puts change beyond planning and control. It almost suggests we’re here just to go along for the ride. How will individuals, institutions and societies deal with that much change? Does rapid technological change mean equivalent social change? While some are pushing for a slowdown in technological development in areas like nanotechnology to think about ethics and effects, this change imperative makes far reaching outcomes seem inevitable, regardless of the consequences. Indeed, one line of thinking is that about mid-way through this century the rate of change will become so great that a radical change for humanity—a singularity—of unpredictable outcome will occur.

Historian Robert Right reviewed the record of technology and change and acknowledged that times of rapid technological change have produced social change, and he agreed that the not-too-distant future could produce a radical change. While many, especially the conference sponsors, envision accelerating change leading to humanity transcending current limits and opening up great possibilities (not necessarily a utopian vision) he said the radical change could also be social collapse into a kind of regressive, chaotic time as new social arrangements are hashed out.

It’s hard to imagine the level of discontinuity predicted by Kurzwel, but perhaps that’s the issue: is the future that will emerge something that we don’t have the imagination to accept? Personally, I’d guess the reality will be somewhere between the singularity and the current situation. But if Kurzweil is even half-right, the degree of change that institutions like the Society face in a couple of decades will be very significant. The culture and practices of change and adaptation may need to be significantly increased to retmain relevant.