Krugman on slowing pace of change

Tom James @ 12-08-2009

changeNobel economics laureate Paul Krugman, speaking at Worldcon, holds forth on the slowing pace of change:

“The pace of change has actually, generation by generation, been slowing down,” he claimed. “The world of today is not as different from the world of 1959 as the world of 1959 was from 1909.”

So let’s say that you travel 30 years into the future and find yourself in a shopping mall. You’ll be astounded at the “great gizmos” that are for sale there, but you’ll still be able to recognize it as a shopping mall, said Krugman. On the other hand, lots of trends are likely to come to a head over the next few decades, including climate change and peak oil, and they could result in a drastically different world.

It kind of makes sense. In the Western world technology – specifically consumer electronics, medicine, communications, and computers – have developed enormously in the past 40 years, but cultural and social change has been less pronounced. We still live a fairly automobile-centric, consumer-based, culturally egalitarian lifestyle[1] that would have been recognisable to someone living in 1959.

But Krugman points out that this could change in the future, with climate change, peak oil, disruptive biotechnology, radical life-extension, resource wars, AI, and the changes in attitudes and culture that these thing could lead to.

[1]: I think that we (i.e. the Western liberal democracies) are certainly a more culturally egalitarian society (with greater gender equality, gay rights, and less racism) than we were in 1959, but I’m not entirely sure that 1909 was substantially more racist, homophobic, and sexist than 1959. Question: did our *culture* (as distinct from technology) change more between 1959 and 2009 than between 1909 and 1959?

[from iO9][image from kevindooley on flickr]

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2 Responses to “Krugman on slowing pace of change”

  1. TomMarcinko says:

    First of all, how great is it to have a leading intellectual who embraces sf?

    Second, I’m grateful for his perspective, because I was bitten by FUTURE SHOCK when I was very young, and always thought the pace of change would continue to accelerate. It probably depends on how you squint at it.

    Toffler got a lot of things wrong–haven’t seen any paper clothes lately–but if memory serves he did predict that politicians who promise a return to the “good old days” would do well. Score one for him.

  2. Greg says:

    I don’t know, I certainly do see his point; the physical structure of our cities has really changed little since the 1950s. I think that more than anything, though, that is the result of the existing infrastructure already being in place. The cost of making dramatic changes now would be much higher than the cost of building the infrastructure in the first place when there was nothing already there. I think that the pace of change really has been accelerating dramatically, it’s just that the changes are less visibly obvious in our daily lifestyle because our infrastructure was put in place in the mid-20th century. However, I am convinced that in the next few decades the pressure of technological change will suddenly break through the shell of our 20th century infrastructure and change things dramatically. The combination of molecular manufacturing techniques and fully roboticized construction will allow us to rebuild everything with an order of magnitude more complexity at a fraction of the cost. I’m a firm believer in accelerating change, I just think that it is being held back by what is already here.