Is technological change really accelerating? Depends – real or perceived change?

Fast businessI’ve just come across this rather dated blog post (from 2006) by Tom Coates in which he is lambasting people for “rhetoric of endless insane change at a ludicrous rate.” The point he wants to make is that the changes being referred to are really the end results of gradual incremental change. It only looks like rapid change when you’re not keeping tabs on relevant trends. The problem here is that Coates doesn’t differentiate between real change and perceived change. This is an important distinction. Most technology consumers (and this includes industries and service providers that consume technologies for their business purposes) neither have the time nor the know-how needed to keep tabs on real change. For them, change occurs, not as a new technology is developed, but when that technology invades their space. There can be a considerable lag between the two and they progress in very different ways.

There’s a great quote from cyberpunk writer, William Gibson (although it’s really not a direct quote – more an idea that he has talked about in one form or another for many years): The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. The quote is often taken to mean there is a social and geographical pecking order in the way that technology is diffused. Or, a slightly different variation, that what we think of as the future has already been invented or decided by someone when we think of it. To illustrate: a teacher may be oblivious to the fact that half of her students have smartwatches. Their smartwatches are affecting the way that they communicate and learn. Whatever changes are caused by the students’ smartwatches will at some point become apparent to the teacher. But, until then, her future is what her students’ are currently experiencing. Thus, the “current” and the “future” are coexisting in the same arena because of a cultural gap. That “future” will not become the teachers’ “current” until she perceives the changes resulting from the technological innovation.

Now, imagine the person that has held off on getting a smartphone until this year. Early adopters experienced what was essentially a phone that could also do some nifty things with maps. Then a range of features were added incrementally over time. The person switching from an old-skool mobile telephone to a smartphone today experiences something much more radical than the early adopters. Suddenly, here is a device that knows all sorts of stuff about you, provides you with information before you knew that you needed it, and happens to do phone calls as well. The perceived change, even though it is a result of a range of incremental technological developments, is sudden and dramatic. To the late adopter, it feels like a mountain of change in a brief period.

But, is this sense of rapid change just an illusion, as Coates claims? I don’t think it is. I think that technological change is indeed speeding up and there’s plenty of evidence that this is the case: computing power available to consumers increases exponentially, Internet bandwidth increases exponentially, the amount of data floating around increases exponentially. Exponential increases are an indication of acceleration. Still, taken on their own, none of these exponential increases necessarily lead to perceived change until the increased capacities that they offer are harnessed for something. They are being harnessed and the ways that they are being harnessed produce even more, and more rapid, change.

Although we can backtrack many of these individual change areas and see a gradual incremental series of changes, those aren’t the changes that we are likely to perceive. The changes that we are likely to perceive are the ones that come about as a result of changes in overlapping areas, or convergences. A change in one area can launch a cascade of changes in another. For example, supercomputers (the type that fill big rooms) are not something that most of us consider to be a part of our immediate technological reality and for a long time that has been correct. However, because of increasing bandwidth, a lot of our daily computing is being offloaded to these supercomputers today. My smartphone has some serious computing power in it, but not enough to do on-the-fly translations between languages. Yet, I can use my smartphone to do on-the-fly translations. The increased bandwidth that I have today makes it feasible for me to capture data and send it to Google’s supercomputers, where it is translated and sent back to me. From my perspective as a user, it’s as if my own smartphone had done all of the work. That is a phenomenal change from what was possible when smartphones first came on the market. It is the result of rapid real changes as technological developments converge and even more rapid perceived changes.

Convergence changes will continue to occur and the rates of change will accelerate. As our communication devices increasingly make use of distributed computing services, their capabilities are less and less defined by physical constraints of the device itself. In other words, if my smartphone is relying on Google’s supercomputers to do stuff, Google can significantly change what it does on the fly. The rapid development of smartphone AIs are an example of this. Google Now, which grew out of a simple location tracking application, can today, a mere 4 years after it was introduced, serve users with a range of information even before they realized that they might want it. Furthermore, services like Google Now continue to evolve at a rapid pace without needing any significant changes to our physical devices. Google puts an update on their servers, and bang! – our technological reality has changed.

It may be that for someone like Coates, whose job it is to keep up with technological change, change looks gradual. This, however, is a matter of perspective. For most of us it doesn’t look that way at all. The rate of change that we see occurring around us is speeding up and it’s likely to keep doing so, in part because the way that change occurs keeps changing, too. I wonder whether Coates has changed his view on change…?

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