Tag Archives: Paul Saffo

Krugman on slowing pace of change

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]

Forecasting the future

I’ve mentioned this lecture series before, but the Long Now Foundation had two recent lecturers, Paul Saffo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, give us their takes on forecasting future trends.

Paul Saffo gives us his rules for forecasting, starting off with a great description of the “cone of uncertainty” that is involved in any sort of forecasting.  He goes on to discuss how humans get the future so wrong – among them are the linear expectations we have, whereas change isn’t linear, but instead moves in more of an “S” curve.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb gave a very humorous talk on how change happens.  He’s got a book out called “The Black Swan,” a book I’ve ordered and look forward to reading.  The title comes from the old European idea that swans were only white, therefore things that were impossible were “as likely as a black swan,” this phrase being enshrined in Shakespearean dialogue, among others.  Until people got to Australia.  They’ve got black swans.

Taleb’s talk focused on the human bias in forecasting – how we use data solely taken from survivors and success stories.  Everyone wants to hear how so-and-so made millions in the dot-com boom-and-you-can-too, but no one wants to hear how my Uncle Ernie lost a million bucks.  Especially if you’re interested in his descriptions of the psychology involved, “Mediocristan” and “Extremistan” are fascinating topics.

Give the blogs a read, and there are certainly worse ways you can spend a couple hours than by listening to the podcasts on the way to work (Taleb and Saffo).

(image via flickr user kamoda)