Is the world speeding up? No, it’s slowing down

Every year Engine hosts The Battle of Big Thinking, an event where people from different parts of the company battle it out in five minute presentations to come up with the most persuasive, provocative thought. This year I threw my hat in the ring and much to my pleasant surprise won!

It was a great event, with many fantastic pitches which left us all buzzing with knowledge and ideas. It was also (mostly) mercifully bullet point free. My own idea was a different take on a familiar thought.

Faster, faster, faster: that is the classic mantra of many a presentation about the way social media, technology and indeed the world is changing. And my idea? That if you look closely at the evidence, the world is actually slowing down, not speeding up.

I’m fully sold on the idea that much is changing in the world, but I’ve always been rather sceptical about claims that the world is speeding up.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent many years in London – and know how slowly I move around most of the time, despite centuries of transportation innovation.

Maybe it’s because I first trained as a nineteenth century historian – and remember the contrast between tens of thousands of miles of new railways conceived, financed, planned, built and put into service in the 1840s alone and the slow, slow progress on so many rail projects now.

Or maybe it’s because I like reading predictions – decades after they were first made. Do that and you quickly realise how often the predicted swift change did not come to be.

So intermittently I’ve picked up on individual examples of speed of change and put them under a bit of scrutiny – such as the myth that technology adaptation is speeding up. Those radio versus iPod figures you see in 1,001 social media presentation? Mythical, when you look closely – as is the general claim that speed of technological adaptation is speeding up (see High Tech Myth #6 in Bob Seidensticker’s Futurehype). And construction projects involve all sorts of very clever innovation to speed up individual tasks, but the greater complexity of what we now demand means building is often slower, not faster.

Look carefully, and the common pattern is the world is getting larger (so more people, so apparently bigger figures that looks less impressive when you remember population growth) and more complicated (so projects take longer even if individual tools or tactics are quicker).  But not faster.

Here’s what I had to say:

[Video now removed – sorry!]

A big thank you to everyone who organised, took part and shared so many great ideas; with of course a particular thank you to those who voted for me…!

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