Exponential Growth

Exponential Growth

You may be asking yourselves, “Dude, why a hockey stick? This blog has nothing to do with hockey!?”

Well, as much as I don’t want to post all the posts at once, I thought this one demanded a bit of an airing from me sooner rather than later, so read on to find out.

Now, I’ve mentioned a lot of this before, but I haven’t made it explicit. This blog is about the increasing pace of change, or rather the increasing pace of the pace of change. In short, things are changing faster, at a faster and faster rate, than ever before.

If that still doesn’t make sense, then before I get to interesting links (and there are a few), I’ll try to explain.

tens of thousands of years ago, the secret of fire was discovered. This simple trick took millennia to cover the planet. Art and construction, too, took a long, long time to become widespread, across thousands of years there was little advancement.

The panacea of speech took goodness-knows how long to develop (and I don’t know where in the long list of “things humans have learned” it comes, but I do know it was incredibly important), and to have it cement itself within all tribes of man on the face of the planet took thousands of years at least.

Eventually, though, somebody decided that hunter-gatherer societies were old hat, and settled down to farming, and built an agricultural society. This took probably a couple thousand years, all said and done – I’m pulling numbers out of a hat, here (charitably, or my behind if you’re being less charitable), but I do think you’ll agree with them.

Point being, once we moved to an agricultural society, we see a veritable explosion of creativity. Not only speech, but arts, crafts and, critically, writing not only emerged but utterly, utterly dominated. So much so, that our less-well-adapted cousins the neanderthal went extinct because they could not compete with homo sapiens’ abilities.

From there, it was less than a thousand years that the first great civilizations arose – phoenicians and sumerians, I believe. This occurred after the last ice-age, somewhere around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Writing developed. Ship-building developed, animal husbandry, mathematics, astronomy… suddenly, within the space of a few thousand years, humanity moved on from living in caves to building castles and ships.

Great libraries were created, filled with ancient texts and the collected wisdom of thousands of these bygone age’s geniuses…

Truly, it was amazing.

And then, of course, came the dark ages. The jews, christians and muslims spent a good deal of time and effort burning, raping, pillaging and destroying heretical manuscripts… and it plunged our modern world into a dark age that lasted damned near a thousand years. There were some great and powerful empires before and during – greek, roman, ottoman – and knowledge of how our world worked did improve some, but… mostly we went backwards.

Mankind forgot that the world was a sphere, as the ancient greeks knew, and indeed, were convinced that the world was younger than the remnants of the previous civilizations which had been continent-spanning in their time (such as the egyptians, indian and chinese).

But I digress.

The enlightenment happened – the search for true knowledge set mankind on a steadily upwards path. Despite threats of mortal punishment, and cries of heresy, the truth about our heliocentric solar system, and the manner and nature of gravity and the electromagnetic force spread like wildfire. In merely a few centuries, we unlocked ever greater secrets of chemistry, maths, physics, astronomy, biology, history, paleontology… but it didn’t stop there.

When radio was invented, it took a good few decades to really come into use. The telephone took less. The television took even less. By this time, world-wide transfer of knowledge (news, entertainment, facts and figures) was commonplace, and the ability for anybody anywhere on the planet (within reason) to know anything anybody else had ever said was less than a year away.

Moving forwards, and mobile phones went global in under a decade. Mobile internet, by that yardstick, went global almost instantly. Flight underwent many absolutely phenomenal leaps in around fifty years, moving so far and so fast that man went to the moon.

…so, what does this enthusiasm add up to? Well, it means that change, and the pace of change, is increasing in leaps and bounds. Measured, it forms an exponential growth-curve, sometimes named “hockey-stick like” after the shape it makes on a graph.

I call this blog “traversing the hockey-stick” because I believe we are sitting right on the cusp of a rate of change so incredibly fast that everything after it will be all but unrecognizable to everything before it. We are sitting right, smack-dab in the middle of that runaway exponential curve, and the next ten to fifteen years will propel our civilization into a future which will be increasingly alien and strange to any onlooker from a century ago.

These ideas aren’t especially new. There is a movement called transhumanism which seeks to promote and evaluate the creation and dissemination of technology to better mankind, enhancing our abilities and traits to the point where, some day, we will be able to apply the label post-human. The father (of sorts) of this field (if there is one person that could be named amongst such a large field) could be said to be one Verner Vinge. He coined the term the singularity.

Going by the exponential graph, the singularity is at the point where the rate of the pace of change has accelerated so far and so fast that it is impossible to measure after it – it has become, essentially, infinitely fast. If it were star, it would be analogous to a black hole – a singularity – where light cannot escape, where all efforts to probe beyond the event horizon are functionally impossible.

There are many science fiction novels which investigate and play with these ideas. One of them is Accelerando, by Charles Stross (you may prefer his website). Another set, by Iain M. Banks, an author who sadly passed away only very recently, is The Culture novels.

They are well worth your time, and Accelerando in particular is free to read online (though, I do suggest getting a dead tree version too. I adore my kindle, but I love the ability to just flip through a book. One day I’ll present my entire sci-fi and fantasy library…).

Enjoy.

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