Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Rethinking normal 3: rethinking the pace of change

Posted in book recommendations, reexamining the fundamentals by Timothy Platt on September 10, 2013

This is my third installment to a series on change, and more specifically about our understanding of what is normal, and how normal and assumable change (see Part 1: putting normal in perspective and Part 2: putting normal in a longer term perspective.)

I began Part 2 with a discussion of the development of one of our oldest information technologies: writing, and with a brief discussion of how disruptive a change that was seen to be. And I focused in the course of that series installment on the ongoing process of technological change and on how that can and does compel an ongoing rethinking of what constitutes normal, at any given time and for any communities of people affected by it. Then at the end of Part 2 I said that I would move forward in time from some 5400 years ago and that technology watershed event, to the past few decades and the technology watersheds that we are facing now. That is the point where I pick up on this narrative for this posting.

Change and even fundamental change in what we do, and what is possible for us to do, have been emerging at a faster and faster rate and certainly since the dawn of the Renaissance in the 14th century. And successive waves of technological advancement have served to successively accelerate this process, with the advent and maturation of steam power giving way to electric power and then nuclear as just one aspect of this trend. But this progression has not been as simple as that with just one disruptively new technology wave hitting us at a time, societally. Disruptive changes have also simultaneously been arising in medicine and biology, agriculture and materials science and more, and in their rapidly evolving practical applications. And even the number of distinct technology areas that have been simultaneously undergoing profound and rapid change has been increasing at a progressively faster rate.

As a general reference on this and for insights into some of the specific change arenas that this has been mostly actively occurring in, I would recommend:

• Kurzweil, R. (2005) The Singularity Is Near: when humans transcend biology. Penguin Books.

• This progression in what we can do, as enabled by our technology, has been mirrored by corresponding changes in what we think of being able to do, and what we take for granted as we routinely do it.
• This progression of technological advancement has been shaping reshaping and changing and evolving our sense of what is normal, and what we simply assume and take for granted too, and at a matching accelerating pace.
• And over the past few decades in particular, this pace of change and of redefining of our understanding of normal, has been proceeding and accelerating at a sufficiently fast rate quantitatively, that has become distinctly qualitatively different and a fundamentally new form of change too.

We are, as I noted at the end of Part 2 of this series, living through a period in which normal visibly changes and for essentially everyone and even several and even many times within any one lifetime. This is fundamentally new to human experience. This is unprecedented in the sweep of human experience and this hyper-accelerated change has come to reshape how we see ourselves and the larger communities that we enter into.

• When the pace of change, and of options enabling technological change is slow, normal becomes stable and settled, and normal becomes tradition with all of the inertia and resistance to novelty and to further change that that entails.
• Normal has time to diffuse out as a widely accepted and shared standard, and as a deeply entrenched one.
• When the pace of change becomes sufficiently rapid, and certainly when normal changes from generation to generation or even within the span of a single generation, much of that tradition-bound stability and constancy begins to break down. When societies are faced with hyper-accelerated change as we have been in recent years and decades, normal comes to be seen for its fluidity and mutability. And what is seen as normal can even come to be seen as more a matter of current fad than stable framework.
• And under these circumstances, a sense of what is normal can and does change at different rates for early and later technology and change adaptors. And overall societies can become partitioned off into separate and distinct groups that hold different fundamental understandings as to what normal means for them and along the lines of both generational, and technology access-driven and socioeconomic and other differentiating factors.
• Consider in this regard, the significance of every separate generation, and even smaller age-similar cohorts having their own identifying names with Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y (also known as Millennials) in the West, all fitting into the last few decades and with each of these demographics holding its own intra-group shared sensibilities – and with each defined at least in part by when its members were born but more so in terms of their uniquely self-identifying sense of “normal.”
• Generational differences between intra-group commonly-held technology preferences, and for information and communication technology in particular, form only part of this pattern of defining inter-group differences.
• Slow changing normal diffuses out and becomes widely accepted and understood. When normal changes rapidly enough the concept of normal itself becomes splintered and locally defined. And the short term currency and more localized reach of any given phase as to what normal means, means that any understanding of normal can be that much more readily replaced and with that much less of a sense of loss or dislocation.

We live in an age for many, where normal and accepted definitions of normal are mutable, and where they are in no sense as if written on tablets as by the finger of a god. But we live in an age where normal is still a matter of dearly held and inter-generationally held tradition too and for many. And that creates conflict and particularly as our collectively shared world becomes as if smaller and smaller every day through our computer and internet, and telephony technologies. Even the way that I write this paragraph would be seen as problematical to some because of this maze of differences – as shaped by different understands as to what is normal and to whom, and just as much by differences in understanding as to how mutable or changeless “normal” should be. I will delve into some of the issues related to this, in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Reexamining the Fundamentals.

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One Response

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  1. Timothy Platt said, on September 10, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    I have to admit that I intentionally selected a contentious and debated technology trend when I wrote “…with the advent and maturation of steam power giving way to electric power and then nuclear as just one aspect of this trend.”

    Steam power arrived with both approval and condemnation and electrical power was seen as a boon in addressing the limits to steam. But depending on how it is generated, and certainly where that means coal, electrical power has come to be more and more problematical in its actual generation and for its environmental impact. Nuclear power is in fact largely used to generate electricity and there is a great deal of resistance to nuclear power generation as, at least as of this writing and through any foreseeable future, no mechanism or disposal site location is available to managing the highly radioactive waste that is generated from it. In the United States, no one has even found ways to long-term manage or store the radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project or the first atomic pile set up as proof of principle that power could be controllably generated from nuclear reactions. And of course, nuclear power is marred in its reputation by events such as the Three Mile Island reactor failure, and even more so by the Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdowns – and the continuing environmental disasters that have sprung from them.

    So I picked a very contentious trio of technologies and add here, wind power and other more environmentally acceptable if not always entirely more environmentally friendly alternatives – the equipment and resources used to enable them have environmental impacts too, as they are produced and distributed. But this posting is not about power generation. It is about what we have come to expect and accept as normal. And whether they are approved of or not, steam power, electrical power created through strictly chemical reactions, and nuclear power have all profoundly altered and reshaped our sense of normal and of the possible and of what we see as acceptable. So I selected and wrote of those three and leave them where they are, with this addendum note for clarification.

    Tim Platt


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