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The Great Acceleration: How the World Is Getting Faster, Faster

Robert Colvile

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Reaction to new technology falls into one of three categories: Optimists who think we're on the brink of a new Utopia, Pessimists who lament the loss of old certainties, and Realists who observe that tech change has been a fact of life for the last 300 years and that human reactions have been quite consistent right throughout.

In 1845 it took 6 months to get a message coast-to-coast in US. By 1865 it took just over a week by Pony Express, whose business model involved detaching the horses from cumbersome stage coaches and flogging them to exhaustion in 40 mile stints. yet within 2 years the Pony Express was superseded by telegraph - the most fundamental law of the market that the fast displaces the slow.

In its day the bicycle was cutting-edge technology. At one stage it was the basis of one-third of patents issued in US as inventors raced to improve the design. A sign of its influence was the same moral panic that accompanies every major change - dark warnings of the sinful consequences of unmarried couples taking rides in the countryside together, or the danger of 'bicycle face' that women would get as the pedalled into the wind.

The servers running YouTube at enormous cost, paid by Google. And Google's ContentID algorithm to stave off copyright lawsuits.

Every time we get a 'like' on Facebook, we get a tiny endomorhin shot. Sites display counts, totals, badges, becuase they know you'll come back to see them tick up.

Cliche of "Incels in mom's basement" but at least keeps people out of trouble. In 2007 111,000 children convicted of a crime in England and Wales. But 2013 that figure had fallen to 28,000. And good argument that children aren't using computer to hide from RL; they're enriching it. More socially liberal, and less materialistic, than their parents.

And need to notice that adults are removing all the teens' unsupervised places like malls.

Machiavelli "The innovator has for enemies all who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new."

Declining costs for startups. In 1980 cost a minimum of $50000 to make a record. Today you can do it in garage for less than $1000.

"If you're not embarrassed by your 1.0 version, you waited too long to ship it." New tech model is to jump off a cliff and assemble an aircraft on the way down.

Startup scene is in a 'Cambrian moment' where all sorts of wild and wonderful ideas are being tried. Many will fail, but because many businesses are operating on razor-thin margins, it takes very little disruption to upset the applecart.

Google's whole business model based on speed. Whereas the existing search engines designed to keep your in their sandbox as long as possible, Google's nearly blank home page intended to get you where you wanted to go as fast as possible.

A tenth-of-second increase in speed of loading Amazon home page cuts sales by 1%. A half-second delay in displaying Google search results cuts revenue by 20%.

Before Facebook, there was Friendster, a social network which had everything Facebook had. But it forgot to focus on usability. As demand overwhelmed the servers, customers baled out. So when Facebook launched, Zuckerberg above all was motivated not to get "Friendstered".

For years it has been claimed that piracy would destroy the music business and the software business. Bill Gates reckons that less than a tenth of 1% of MS products on Chinese computers are genuine. But people used illegal downloads because it was easiest as well as cheapest way to get the product. Once iTunes etc simplified the process, piracy halved.

Perception that today's life has become far busier - yet we have time to consume box sets and 1000 page novels.

A study where people asked to spend 15 minutes alone in an empty room, just with their thoughts. More than half said they disliked the experience, and in fact were (2/3 of the men, 1/4 of women) prepared to experience an unpleasant electric shock just to relieve the tedium.

Experiencing poverty saps our mental bandwith - in a tunnel where only immediate problems can be focused on. But similar effect from information overload with CEOs single-mindedly trying to drive company forward but losing sight of the big picture. And the combo of too much info and not enough time to process it turns us into worse people - much more impatient and irritable with minor delays.

Criticism of modern dating culture misses the point. Aps like Tindr are at least engaging people, encouraging interaction, rather than having them retreat into their phones.

There are 3 factors that govern one's commitment to a relationship. How satisfied you are with it, the amount of time and resources you've already put in, and the quality of the alternatives available. The third is what drives the hookup culture - with so many alternatives available it doesn't make sense to invest too much effort into a relationship.

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Easy to imagine an AI program that can iterate emotionally, monitoring feedback from you (your smiles, your blood pressure, your pupil dilation)to become your perfect partner. And even though you know it's artificial, still a lot easier than trying to adapt to a selfish and imperfect other half. And especially for the millions of people out there who can't find anyone to love, and whose lives are a tragedy.

Women keeping a gaggle of male friends for different purposes - bedmate, confidant, repairman, free food - rather than settle early for a single partner.

Put a male rat in a cage with a female, and he'll screw till he's exhausted. But put a new female in cage and he'll suddenly recover his libido. And same thing if put a third female. (After that he dies ....)

Comp games such as Candy Crush carefully orchestrated to offer player 30 seconds of intense fun, and then repeat that again and again, with suitable variations. And with no awkward pauses, with the next battle station easy to find.

Films far quicker paced today. When Jurassic Park was remastered for 3D in 2013 to mark it's 20-year anniversary, one critic noted that it took almost an hour for the actual danger to appear.

Newspapers did a lot of things reasonably well. But today, online apps and programs are doing each bit, better. But at the same time, reporters under pressure to produce new stories several times a day. The result is that stories are under-resourced - journos don't have time to do background research or to verify facts.

Cuba Missile Crisis JFK kept knowledge that there were nuclear missiles in Cuba secret for a week. If it had become public knowledge, as it inevitably would have today, public and congressional pressure would have been for an immediate air strike, which would have almost certainly lead to a full nuclear war.

We expect instant gratification at a time when govts have changed little in the way they are set up to deal with events, so there is a widening disconnect between what we want and what govts can deliver. The Internet has made it easier for people to organize, and easier for them to throw grit in the wheels. How long does it take to get anything done these days?

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US Govt buys $24,268 of public services for each citizen, according to Douglas Carswell in his book The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy.

The emergent countries like China etc no longer see Western democracy as something to aspire too - too wasteful and inefficient. Instead they look to more autocratic countries such as Singapore as a model for how to get things done.

Stock market rewards short-termism: "We crown the winners of the marathon after each 100m sprint."

When a financial crisis, you no longer see queues on the street - instead the money is whisked out of the banks with the click of a button.

And the banks are run by people who were promoted because of their people skills rather than tech knowledge, while the algorithms which power the bank, are only understood by the techies.

Thomas Peterffy was first to apply computers to figure out what shares to buy. In 1977 he bought a seat on NY Stock Exchange for $36,000, giving him the ability to make trades. He hired extremely attractive models as his floor traders, who for some reason found it easy to get their orders taken.

In 2003 an employee of an unnamed US trading firm became insolvent 16 seconds after an employee switched on an algorithm which hadn't been properly tested. It took the firm 47 minutes to realize it had gone bust.

The Flash Crash of 2010, when, for 20 minutes, the Dow Jones fluctuated wildly, recording the biggest one-day drop ever (Accenture shares dropped from $40 to .01 cents, Apple went from $34 to $100,000). But even now, nobody understands exactly why it happened.

According to Tony Vanderbilt in his book Traffic, drivers in US stuck in traffic jams are spending so much time with elbows out window that skin cancer rates are noticeably higher there. The book also suggests that people have a 'travel-time budget' of about an hour, and if your commute is shorter, you'll spend the time in a coffee bar before going in to work.


Robert Colville, a former news director of BuzzFeed UK, is not the first journalist to notice that the world is speeding up. He might be the first, though, to portray how awful the consequences are, and then respond to his evidence with such cheerful optimism. 'Where our grandfathers sauntered and our fathers strode,' he writes, 'we find ourselves scampering about our daily tasks.' His book is an alert and readable survey of the effects of 'the great acceleration' on tech firms, social media, art, news media, politics, banking and the environment.

Its statistics are certainly striking. Chickens grow four times more quickly than 50 years ago. In 1960, Americans got between eight and nine hours' sleep; by 2000 the average was fewer than seven hours. Walking speeds went up 10% between the early 1990s and 2006 - and the pace in the East was catching up with the frenetic West, at least in cities.

Popular culture really has its foot on the pedal. In sport, five-day Test matches are giving way to single-evening Twenty20 six-fests. In cinema, the average length of a shot has declined from 10 seconds in the 1930s and 1940s to less than four seconds. In pop music, not one act reached No 1 with a debut single until 1994. (Saturday Night by Whigfield.) In 2014, 14 artists made the top slot in that one year.

As for internet culture, we are bombarded, frustrated, addicted, disrupted, interrupted and strung out. Unstructured play in children is 'sliced to the bone' and ADHD is the 'quintessential modern disease'. Tinder is a classic example of why an accelerated culture is also a degraded one because it strips romance from the equation. (Although it also seems we are fussier about who we date, Colville rather neglects areas in which we might be said to be slowing down: what about the age of marriage?)

Occasionally, Colville insists we are speeding up because we want to, and that surveys show we are happier for it. Nonetheless, anxiety emerges as an underlying theme. Tech companies are 'not just messianic but petrified', driven by the fear that someone else will disrupt traditional industries before they get to them. Children, whipped on by social media, are beset by a crippling Fomo (fear of missing out). Their parents' generation 'knew there was always a cooler party somewhere,' empathises Colville, 'but they couldn't see the guest list'. A chapter on the environment tries to balance its accumulating evidence of accelerating disaster with breezy promises of technological fixes: think featherless chickens and vertical farms.

Grimmest, though, is his depiction of the media and its 24-hour news cycle, which gives 'the feeling that we are trapped on a turbulent, scary planet, in which drama and crisis are never far away'. Indeed. Colville is good on the media and politics, as you would expect, though he mostly analyses government in terms of its media relations. The 24-hour news cycle is destroying quality journalism, he warns, as fewer and fewer facts get thoroughly checked. (Though he says elsewhere that short and long stories are flourishing, and it is only the 'mediocre middle' that is being stripped out.) The cycle is also impoverishing government, which is always under pressure to announce policies that are simultaneously half-baked and oversold. As an unnamed Downing Street senior official tells Colville, responding to breaking news is 'a really bad way to run a country'.

A similar accusation could be levelled at this book. It is interesting, but it feels hasty. Too many of Colville's best lines are quotes from other writers, and the fact-checking could have been more thorough. Page one (awkward!) repeats the debunked notion that women living together fall into 'menstrual synchrony'. A few pages on, he quotes a 19th-century advertisement for the Pony Express: 'Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.' Fabulous quote. Alas, not real.

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