TED Conversations

Laurens Rademakers


This conversation is closed. Start a new conversation
or join one »

Why do things "speed up" over time? (Science, Innovation, War, Information...)

An interesting philosopher -- Paul Virilio - has written a lot about the acceleration of speed in the development of mankind:

-Information + speed: things get faster, billions of people are informed about events simultaneously, around the globe
-Politics and war + speed: blitzkrieg and video-bombing
-Science + speed: the law of accelerating inventions and returns

All disciplines and sectors of social management seem to "speed up" over time. The consequences are "catastrophic", according to him. Because of this, we are losing our grip on "reality".

Kurzweil has written something similar, but draws a kind of utopian fantasy out of it (his idea of the Singularity).

Why do things speed up over time?

Where does this come from?

:: Is there some kind of hidden law of acceleration in the universe? If we suggest there is, we have become metaphysicists

:: Is it the result of the evolution of our brain? If we say so, we need to explain why speed speeds up, while our brain is not getting faster, fast.

:: Perhaps it's a demographic fact? More brains are collaborating than ever before, on this planet.

None of these explanations is satisfactory. The question thus remains unanswered.

progress indicator
  • Jul 5 2011: More people, More thoughts, Better forms of communication. You do the maths.
  • thumb
    Jun 30 2011: Things follow the exponential law. On the x-axis you have speed of things, and on the y-axis you have the years.

    On the exponential curve, the bit of curve ahead of you looks steeper than the bit behind you, even though the exponential constant is, well, constant!

    So in 1800 somebody like you is sure to have made a similar comment. In 2100, somebody like you is sure to make a similar comment. Yes, the single law of the universe: Ex-po-nen-tial.

    If I can engage you in a little futuristic nerd-geek talk, I'm gonna say that there is no end point to the curve, but the exponential constant will change. The point in time corresponding to the change in exponential constant will be the time when civilization will be reborn, with a new erased memory of its past, and it will set on its own exponential curve.

    OMG! I have an even better idea. The ultimate solution to the universe problem: It is a huge sinusoidal wave. The sinusoidal wave is composed of exponential curves. So each civlization is a stretch of exponential curve on the sinusoidal wave.
  • thumb
    Jun 27 2011: I think the most important explanation albeit from your options has to be that perhaps its a demographic fact. Lets eliminate other factors first - Hidden laws imply that we, as you say are metaphysicists, and the explanation for everything is God. Not that Im an atheist, and I do believe in a higher power, but thats a different debate on a different thread. Evolution(brain or otherwise) again cannot be exponential, if it were we would probably be flying to work(either have developed wings or cheated gravity) because the rate of evolution has not been rapid enough to suggest otherwise. Now when we look at the demographic nature(its not really demographic, but we ll call it that now) smart people collaborate with other smart people more often now than they did say a century ago. We have reach now, we have technologies where people can collaborate across countries and borders and say if two people came up with an idea in 3 days hundred years ago, twenty people can collaborate to come up with that idea in half a day today. Science, Innovation, War, Information are just some examples where people combine to deliver ideas faster everyday. I dont think we are losing grip on reality, maybe just that reality has a firmer grip on people now more than ever. I m not really a mathematician but people who are will argue that its all to do with math and exponents, but the reality is the understanding of math and exponents came only after smart people collaborated on it. And yet the ideas are still fuzzy at best. But food for thought - To counter argue that there really has been no change at all -Feynman would say Entropy is a measure of disorder of elements inside a system to make it look the same outside, I think from an outside perspective the rate hasnt changed at all, but since we are internal elements of this ever increasing entropy(disorder) we see it as a logarithm of change and hence the measured increase.
    • Jun 27 2011: Evolution may be exponential when it comes to certain higher functions of the mind; we believe that we are thinking in a certain number of dimensions. How do we know this? Suppose that their are higher dimensions of thought that are not observable and measurable with existing scientific methods. The physical world may be converted into the spiritual world so that we have the following equation: The sum of spiritual energy E (sub) "s" + physical energy E sub "p" + matter (m) = nothingness.

      One individual working 1000 hours to solve a problem can come up with more useful ideas than 1,000,000 people on the internet spending one hour apiece. The internet is a mile wide and an inch deep. I reject the notion of the utility of mass efforts to solve problems (based on my experience of publishing in many fields).

      In the Mensa Bulletin in 1995 I specified the steps to achieve an increase in the number of paradigm shifts it is possible to attain. The first nation whose scientists understand and achieve effective utilization of these methods I predict will assume a leadership role in science and technology. You will note that this is not a collaborative effort, it is the work of individuals.

      This process is called intuitive iteration:

      1) Get a gut reaction to a situation,

      2) Introduce the facts and logic,

      3) Compare and contrast the facts and logic,

      4) If they are compatible then you are on to something potentially significant,

      5) If they diagree try to resolve the differences,

      6) If they cannot be resolved throw out your intuition, the facts and the logic,

      7) Start over i.e. get a gut reaction.

      It took me over 2000 iterations to find just one new idea in chess alone, but that new idea revolutionized an entire opening in chess.

      In geology after 35 years and vast amounts of work I published a new school of geology. It is published on line ("Beyond Plate Tectonics: 'Plate' Dynamics"). It took just one individual to create this new school of geology, not a committee.
      • thumb
        Jun 29 2011: "A mile wide and an inch deep" sums up the internet nicely.
  • Jun 26 2011: I believe it has something to do with the nature of networks in mathematics which is also related to exponential growth. There's this very interesting (and long) talk by Geoffrey West at edge.org ( http://edge.org/conversation/geoffrey-west ) which may give you some answers. Its title is "Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster."

    Just to highlight the importance of networks, all those things which "speed up" (information, politics, war, and scientific discoveries) are variations of human interactions which are dominated by social networks.
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Jun 25 2011: I would say that this is the correct answer. Once you understand the mathematical concept of exponential growth, it is fairly easy to understand what is happening. Stated in plain english, the basic law is


      Although the world obviously are more complex than this, it captures the essence of what is happening. We use all of todays technology to build tomorrows technology, and because we have more technology today than we had yesterday, the speed with which the amount of technology increases is larger today. And similarly the speed will be greater tomorrow than it is today.

      I think it not is very hard to imagine how similar statements can be seen to be true also in other areas than technology. And then these different areas are interconnected with each other too, and fuels each others growth in a similar fashion.

      Of course there are also things that slows development like economic down turns, wars, diseases, and many other similar or less severe factors. Which can create stagnation or decline, but on the grand scale the law above dominates them all. The only possible definite barrier for it's continuations seems to me to be the earths available resources.
  • thumb
    Jun 25 2011: I would say that this, fundamentally, is related to the fact that entropy is on a never-ending, or seemingly never-ending, path of growth. Entropy is perpetually increasing, so, the amount of potentialities is increasing.
    Actually, in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil discusses the trend of rapid increase in the rates of technological innovation and invention. I forget the details of his take on this matter, but it was a great read overall, I'd recommend it!
  • Jun 25 2011: Moore's law - The number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.

    Since the way we generate and spread information is closely linked with technology, the better our technology becomes, the faster the information is spread, analyzed and used to formulate new ideas in a more cost effective manner.

    Science, Innovation and War are all closely linked to our tools, our technology.

    This is why it is so important to invest in new technologies. The nation, companies, or people with the best technology have more opportunities.