What If Things Are Changing Faster than We Can Adapt?
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At some point, in some post (and probably several posts) I asserted that:
The world is changing faster than we can adapt to it.
Then (and now) this statement seemed obvious, so I remember being surprised when I got some pushback on it. But upon reflection it was also illuminating. Many disagreements come down to core values and assumptions which are so deeply embedded that we’ve forgotten they’re there. It’s what makes these disagreements so intractable. We’re arguing from different, unseen foundations. I decided it was past time to unearth this particular foundation, and examine its various parts. What do I mean by “the world” and “change” and “speed” and “adaptation”? And if we can come to an agreement on all of that, what are the consequences of change moving faster than our ability to adapt?
I- The World
This first idea is pretty simple. By “the world” I mean nearly everything. Certainly I’m not arguing that continental drift has sped up, but depending on how apocalyptic you are about climate change and the environment (and there is evidence in favor of being pretty apocalyptic) just about everything outside of geology has been touched by progress and modernity: oceans, weather, other forms of life, nations, institutions, people, gadgets, technology, etc.
My own interests and writings have been about things at the end of that list, societal issues, the impact of technology, but as I’ve said I think the issue is broader. Nearly everything has been affected. Nearly everything is worthy of study, nearly everything is changing more quickly now than in the past. But in this post I’m mostly going to focus on societal progress and new technology.
As we get deeper into the discussion things get tricker, and it’s important to recognize that while some things have changed a lot, some things haven’t changed very much at all. So let me start by acknowledging things that haven’t changed. While I fear we may be coming to the end of it, there’s been remarkable political stability for many decades. Compare the last 100 years in America with nearly any other 100 year period anywhere else and you’ll be amazed by how calm the last century has been. Yes, there was World War II, but the US came through that relatively unschathed. Additionally there was the Cold War, the Korean War, and Vietnam, but again as these things go it could have been a lot worse. Should you decide to limit it to the last 50 years then things really look good because everything I just mentioned, other than the Cold War, falls off the list, and even the Cold War has been over for 30 years.
As a comparison, take France between 1775 and 1875. The period started with them assisting the American Revolution, then they had their own quite dramatic revolution in 1789. Shortly after this the Revolutionary Wars started. Napoleon took power in 1799, and turned them into the Napoleonic Wars. These wars reached a nadir for France in the disastrous Russian campaign, which was the first step in Napoleon’s eventual abdication and the restoration of the monarchy. He was sent to Elba, then he came back and was defeated again. After this the French had 15 years to catch their breath before undergoing another revolution in 1830. Then a democratic revolution in 1848. This democracy only lasted three years before Napoleon III pulled a coup-d’etat and declared the second empire. This limped along until 1870 when the French were abjectly defeated by the Prussians. If all of this is too messy, you could cut to the chase and just consider France during the 50 years between 1900 and 1950, which included both World Wars.
All of this is to point out that things have been remarkably calm in the US for the last 100 years. No invasions, no wars actually being fought on home soil, peaceful transfers of power every four years, etc. But what’s interesting is that this period of peace is also an example of change. As I have argued in previous posts perhaps wars are necessary to reveal inefficiencies, to shake up scloretic institutions. Perhaps conflict is necessary if you want to bind nations together into a common cause. Historically we’ve had an overabundance of wars and conflicts, at the moment they’re so scarce we’re almost forced to invent them. Obviously the world, and in particular the Ukrainians, would be a lot better off if Russia didn’t invade, and this should not be ignored, but given that our involvement will probably only increase the risk of the conflict escalating into something truly dangerous it’s not clear why we think we have a dog in this fight. Which is to say we’re inventing conflicts.
I could go on and on listing things in 2022 which are different from 1922, 1822 and 1722. And the list gets even longer if we start talking about differences between 2022 AD and 22 AD or 1522 BC or 10,000 BC. There has been an enormous amount of change. I am sympathetic to those people who think that most of this change has been good. Certainly I’d be unwilling to abandon most of it. But change, by definition, has consequences. Some of these consequences are beneficial, some are harmful, but amenable to mitigation. However, some are harmful in non-obvious ways. Ways which may not initially seem linked to the underlying change . If harmful consequences are rare, or obvious or tightly linked, then mitigation might be straightforward (and then again it might not). But if harmful consequences are numerous, subtle or difficult to link back to a cause then mitigation becomes nearly impossible. The next idea increases the likelihood that change will possess all of those properties
The word “speed” carries a lot of weight in my original statement. It not only covers how rapidly technology advances, but how rapidly it spreads. Also speed is relative. There are few people left who remember pre-war America, and so it seems like a long time ago, and yet from a historical perspective the transition from frequent wars between the great powers to no wars between the great powers happened mere moments ago. All of these factors must be considered when we’re speaking of how fast things have changed.
Before we get too deeply into things we should once again consider the opposite side, the many arguments for stagnation—that change isn’t speeding up, it’s slowing down. I certainly acknowledge that there has been some degree of stagnation. I wrote a glowing review of Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, in which stagnation is a major theme. But while I agree that stagnation is happening, I don’t think it undermines my point as much as you might think. To begin with, we could be stagnating quickly, going from an expanding, culturally rich society with a great economy, to a society that’s shrinking, recycled and impoverished in just the space of a few decades.
One example of stagnation provided by Douthat is our falling birth rate. Whether you agree with him that this is a sign of decadence and a bad thing, it’s indisputable that it happened very quickly. The US’s total fertility rate has recently been cut in half, going from 3.58 at the height of the baby boom to 1.77 in the space of 20 years (1960-1980). And on this measure the US is doing better than most developed countries. South Korea went from a total fertility rate of 6 to 1.5 in the space of just 30 years (1958-1988) and is now hovering at just over 1. All of this speaks to a degree of stagnation, but also illustrates the speed with which things change in the modern world. Speed isn’t just about new technology arriving, it's about old ways of doing things disappearing.
Beyond this, most stagnation arguments end up referencing big visible things. For example, we rarely build new skyscrapers and when we do it takes forever. Big infrastructure projects are also rare and hideously expensive. We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters (now 280 characters). I agree with most of these arguments, but even if such efforts are slowing down rather than speeding up, I think the consequences for the world of slowing in these areas are entirely swamped by the speedup in other areas. Even when things were moving fast in the realm of infrastructure they were still moving pretty slow. There’s a limit to how fast you can build the interstate highway system, or construct the infrastructure necessary to send a man to the moon. By shifting our focus online changes happen much, much faster. To take the example I just mentioned, the interstate highway system took 35 years to build, while it only took Facebook four years to become the dominant social media platform and a similar amount of time for Google to become the dominant search engine. And of course they were becoming dominant in industries that didn’t even exist more than a handful of years before that.
While virtual changes happen much faster, one might still argue that material changes have a bigger impact. Which is to say, that even though it took 35 years, the interstate highway system had a far bigger impact than the rise of Facebook. Well, insofar as they both brought about massive changes both feed into my point about the speed of modernity, but those making the materialist argument would go on to say that because we’ve stopped “building things” that we’ve stopped the biggest source of change, and here I’d have to disagree. The change of being able to easily travel from one side of the country to another is a big one, don’t get me wrong, but, depending on how you define “easily”, we’ve been able to do that since at least 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed, and if you didn’t mind more hardship, for decades before that as well. Yes, it’s true, we had never previously sent anyone to the moon, but we’ve been spending lots of money to send explorers to dangerous places for centuries.
What we haven’t ever done is create echo chambers where millions of people whip their political co-religionists into ecstatic frenzies of hate and distrust. We haven’t ever used machine learning to optimize the process of turning young people into zombified status-scrollers. And we’ve never flooded the world with information, much of it wrong, nearly all of it stripped of nuance. Returning to my central point, all of these new and unprecedented things have happened with unbelievable speed.
I ended the last section by claiming that speed made negative consequences numerous, subtle, and difficult to link back to a cause. The “numerous” part should hopefully be uncontroversial, as things speed up more things happen in less time. “Subtle” and “difficult to link” probably require more explanation, but perhaps some examples might help. The harms I mentioned in the last paragraph (echo chambers, zombification, information overload) seem pretty clearly to be harms wrought by social media. But it took many years for that connection to be made, long enough that it’s going to be difficult to unwind. Also here again we see the difference between the virtual and the material. When someone dies in a car crash the role of the car in the whole affair is pretty obvious. When the rate of teenage depression goes up by 59% over 10 years, the causes are harder to untangle.
This is what I mean by “subtle” and “difficult to link”, but in many respects, social media is actually one of the easier places to draw conclusions. To move on to another example consider the opioid crisis. Obviously something had to change in order for drug overdose deaths to increase by nearly 600% in only 23 years (17,000 in 2000 to 100,000 in 2021). But you certainly can’t point to just one change as being at the root of everything. (And to be fair blaming teenage depression on social media is also probably an oversimplification.) Many people want to put the blame entirely on the introduction and aggressive (some would say illegal) marketing of Oxycontin, but as I have previously pointed out, upstream of the introduction of Oxycontin there was a broad change in the opinion of the medical community that pain should be treated much more aggressively. This opinion was progressive and compassionate, and the modern world, in the form of Purdue Pharma, was able to capitalize on this change far faster than society or government could adapt to the consequence brought on by the change. As I mentioned in my book reviews at the beginning of the month a drug crisis post is on it’s way, but it’s worth adding that the Oxycontin change was followed by a heroin distribution change, followed by a switch to fentanyl, followed by the craziness of P2P meth. And as far as I can tell we haven’t been able to adapt to any of these changes.
Choosing to talk about opioids is relatively safe. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that it’s something which hasn’t changed fast, or that we have dealt with that change well. So let’s talk about something more controversial, something which also moved very fast, but where, at first glance, adaptation appears to have been equally fast. We have a tendency to think that if something was easy to adapt to, it’s natural, and by extension good. Unlike the opioid crisis, an enormous number of people think that this change has been good. What is this change? LGBT rights, encompassing both acceptance and identification.
Once again it’s hard to argue that this didn’t move really fast. And again, it’s hard to point to some single background change which lies at the root of the expansion, but the hardest task of all is to imagine that it could have happened this fast or at all 100 years ago. But of course whereas everyone views the opioid crisis as unquestionably bad, nearly the exact opposite view is held with it comes to LGBT rights, most people view their expansion as something which was unquestionably good. That said, I’m not one of them. I’ve talked about this before and I don’t think this is the space to rehash all the details, nor does it seem time to relitigate that argument. So let’s take something where opinion is more divided: the rising number of people identifying as transgender and in particular the concept of gender self-identification. Regardless of what side you take, it’s clear that this is another example of things changing far faster than we can adapt. Everyone agrees with that, where the disagreement lies is on where the adaptation needs to happen. On one side you may think adaptation is being slowed by bigotry and outdated beliefs, on the other side you may think adaptation is being slowed because the demands are incoherent and disconnected from reality, but in either case speed is presumably a problem. Either we need to slow down the changes, or we need to speed up adaptation, which takes us to:
When you hear the word adaptation, you are most likely thinking of people adapting to their environment. But of course it can go the other way as well, we can adapt our environment to people, make it a better fit for human nature, as it already exists. We can view the first as fixing the people who are broken while viewing the second as fixing the things that are broken.
We think we’re focused on the latter, but in practice we put most of the weight on the former. The opioid crisis is a great example. One of the reasons Purdue pharmacy got away with it for so long was the claim that their time-release formula had fixed the thing that was broken. That yes, in the past, lots of people had abused or become addicted to opioids, and presumably they still would, except Purdue changed opioids so that people wouldn’t abuse them. When confronted by evidence that people were abusing it in spite of this “fix” they claimed that they had already fixed the thing so that it worked with normal human nature, anyone who was still having problems had an “addictive nature” and these people were broken in ways beyond what Purdue could be expected to deal with.
This example also illustrates the big problem with adaptation as it is practiced by the modern world. We have this expectation that our technology is powerful enough, and our scientists smart enough, that all things ought to be fixable. We ought to be able to finesse our technology in such a way that we are only left with the good bits: opioids with all the pain relief but none of the potential for abuse; social media that improves mental health and acts as a bastion of facts and reason without devolving into ideological echo chambers; unfettered expressions of identity that always end up being healthy without ever being dogmatic, or bundled into a harmful social contagion.
One further element gets thrown into this mix, humans actually are pretty adaptable, particularly over the short term, so while the ideal is fixing things, we often end up leaning on the idea that humans can fix themselves. Is social media a problem? Then just stop using it. Addicted to opioids? You should have been more careful. You want to identify as a different gender? Oh, well in that case we’ll just have everyone else do the adapting.
When you combine these two things together—the expectation that we can get technology to do anything we want, with human’s innate adaptability—it’s easy to slip into an assumption that when something is broken it’s people not technology.
Even if people are willing to admit that technology is broken, frequently the answer is that we just need more technology: tamper proof Oxycontin, better algorithms to detect questionable content on social media, gender reassignment surgery to get rid of dysphoria. Of course, for some people the eventual goal is to transcend human nature entirely, uploading our consciousness into a computer, then people will be things and we’ll be able to indulge in unlimited tinkering.
I haven’t done anything to tie this back to the speed at which things are changing, but you can see where if the answer to the problem is more technology, that in a sense the answer to the problems of adaptation is to change things even faster. In the final analysis, I think we are expecting both too much out of people and too much out of technology. Just because we can do something with technology doesn’t mean that we should.
I would hope that the examples already provided would give an adequate sense of the consequences of speed outstripping adaptation, but if not let me make one last attempt to pull it all together. When technology advances faster than society a chasm is created between the two. Or more specifically between the consequences of the technology and the tools available to deal with those consequences. The differential between the speed with which those two develop—tools vs. tech—determines the size of the chasm. Additionally until the speed of adaptation equals or exceeds the speed of technology the chasm just keeps getting bigger. I have no idea when our tools will catch up to our technology, but my worry is that before it does the chasm will grow so large that it will swallow us.
For those who think I’m being alarmist or unduly apocalyptic, I’m going to conclude by telling the story of a previous time when technological speed outstripped societal adaptation:
In 1452 Gutenburg invented the printing press. By 1500, 236 towns had printing presses, and an estimated 20 million books had been printed for a population of perhaps 70 million. This was an explosion in the availability of information similar to what we’re seeing today. Similar, but still far slower. This explosion in information was shortly followed by the Protestant Reformation, this went through various twists and turns but eventually culminated in the Thirty Years’ War. On a per capita basis this war was almost certainly the most deadly European War ever. Overall 20% of the population of Germany died, and in some areas it was as high as 50%. I heard someone compare the present day to the period preceding the Thirty Years’ War. There are definitely similarities. Am I predicting something as awful as that? No. But if you’re looking for a worst case scenario for when technological change outstrips society's ability to adapt, the worst case is really really bad.
I don’t know where things are going to end up. I don’t know what sort of technology has yet to be invented. Maybe it will make things worse, maybe it will make things better. What I am confident in predicting is what we’re experiencing now is only the beginning.
Of all the changes wrought by new technological advances, information dissemination may be changing the fastest. I suspect that by continuing to maintain a patreon backed blog, rather than pivoting to tiktok videos that I am not adapting quickly enough. Perhaps the next time I post it will be to direct you to my tiktok channel, but until then consider donating.