The Rate Of Change Tends To Compound So Things Are About To Get Even More Nuts

It’s not like the changes we’ve seen in the past few decades are the result of humans collectively deciding, “okay, it’s time to start changing stuff.” No, progress is extremely slow at first but compounds as a society becomes more and more capable. It’s a pain in the ass to construct a building, but once you do it’s far easier to spend your days inside doing research and intellectual work which propel our capabilities along far faster.

“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense 'intuitive linear' view,” the author and futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote at the beginning of this century, “So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate).”

100 years worth of progress back in the day probably meant discovering a few new berries that can kill you or getting slightly better at hunting a specific animal.

What does 100 years worth of progress look like when most humans on Earth are literate, have enough food to eat, live far longer, are given a basic education, have tools to communicate instantly with all humans across the planet, and have access to the collective tome of human knowledge?

We’re about to find out, and I bet it looks something like this:

Pictured: a graph of everything right now

Pictured: a graph of everything right now

A Few Things I Observed While Hanging Out At A Lake That Are Absurd When Contrasted Against Most Of Human History

We tend to view the reality we’re born into as “normal.” We inherit a version of the world and get used to it quickly.

For most of human history, that made sense. In 1,000 AD, your life was not going to be that different from the life of your grandparents or their grandparents. If your dad was a carpenter, you’d probably be a carpenter too. You didn’t really need to contextualize where you sat in history since so little was bound to change. Things changed even less during our hunter-gatherer days (which, as a friendly reminder, was the vast majority of human history - which is itself nuts).

But today is fundamentally different and our intuition needs to catch the hell up. Today, your dad may have been a carpenter but it’s possible that you’ll make a career as a Self-Driving Food Truck Machine Learning Engineer.

The world we’ve inherited IS different than the world our parents grew up in. A reality TV star is president, we can summon strangers to give us rides with a handheld supercomputer, and the majority of man’s knowledge is instantly accessible by anybody on Earth with a barely-functional computer.

The signs that our world is anything but normal surround us. Allow me to offer a few that I noticed while hanging out at a random lake in the Pacific Northwest last week:

Absurd Thing #1

I met a woman from India who was visiting the U.S. for the week. India is 7,729 miles away from where I met her. She also spoke English. There is absolutely no historical precedent for a human being able to easily visit a tribe seven thousand miles away and to become fluent in the language of that foreign tribe before arriving. Both of these things are possible largely thanks to modern aviation and global communication networks - both of which are less than 100 years old.

Absurd Thing #2

Two dudes were flying an unmanned aerial vehicle (a cheap-ass drone) using a device (an iPhone) with more computational power than that the wealthiest nation-state used to land men on the moon just half a century earlier. Not only do the devices use things that were discovered or invented in the last two centuries to communicate (radio waves, machine language represented as bits), but many of the raw materials in both items didn’t even exist until relatively recently (the plastic in the drone, components of the batteries in both). That’s crazy and not normal. Up until the past few centuries, basically everything was made of sticks, rocks, and mud.*

* I’m speaking in generalities - stay out of my DMs

Absurd Thing #3

A group of girls made a brief appearance to take Instagram photos of each other at the edge of the lake. They showed up wearing full makeup with their hair done. They also wore workout gear which was hilarious because they immediately returned to their cars after taking the photos and clearly had no intentions of hiking. Their behavior was entirely motivated by a piece of software that thirteen people built and only became popular a few years ago. 

Instagram allows us to manufacture a perception of our lives in order to garner the social approval of friends, family, people we grew up with, people we went to high school with but don’t talk to anymore, people we’ve only met once or twice, and complete strangers all over the planet.

Historically speaking, that’s pretty wild. Almost no previous humans spent hours each week crafting an image of themselves to broadcast to complete strangers or people they barely knew. Also, it would have been absurd 20 years ago to know exactly how a girl that was in my middle school geometry class that I haven’t spoken to since spent her weekend.

Absurd Thing #4

We had a wireless speaker that occasionally would play a song recorded years ago by somebody who is now dead. The speaker technology itself is impressive and new, but even stranger is the fact that for most of human history, listening to music required finding somebody nearby who was not dead to play some for you. Sound was ephemeral for the vast, vast majority of our history. It's now totally normal to have a dead guy sing you a song while you're hanging out in the mountains or cruising 30,000 feet above the Earth.

Today is weird and the signs are all around if you just look.