In Part 1 of our analysis, we reviewed the current prevailing theme within futurism: changes and innovation, powered by rapid growth in technology, will accelerate and disrupt our systems in an unprecendented way. We also saw that in related commentary on higher education, observers commonly caution that schools must abandon traditional methods and be more agile in preparing students for an unpredictable and hyper-changing future.
Here, in Part 2, we consider a key question: Are we truly entering a period of unique, exponential disruption in our social systems?
Is there anything new under the sun?
Ironically, each generation tends to think it’s unique in some of the same, non-unique ways. First, present-day adults usually believe that they live within an unprecedented decline in moral and cultural decency (as Madonna of the 1980’s was more depraved than Elvis of the 1950’s, just as he was less decent than the flappers of the 1920’s, etc.). Meanwhile, the rising youth of any period–whether Boomers, Millenials, or GenZers–are typically regarded as being more cynical and self-centered than ever. As Elpseth Reeve explains in The Atlantic, “EveryEveryEvery Generation Has Been the MeMeMe Generation.”
Also, any given generation of adults tends to perceive that the world is busier and more complicated than that of their grandparents. The “good old days” were and always will be 50-60 years prior to today, perpetually moving forward on a relative, sliding timeline.
Note that it was over 200 years ago that one of William Wordsworth’s sonnets expressed this sensation for his own generation:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours…
Given the predilection of people to think things are getting busier, futurists have an agreeable audience when they claim that the whole world is about to change faster.
But just because every generation tends to have the same general impressions of the qualities of tomorrow vs. today vs. yesterday, that doesn’t mean that each generation has been wrong in these opinions. Madonna was indeed trashier than Elvis, after all, just as Wordworth’s London could only be regarded as quaintly simplistic when compared to the the present metropolis.
Our key concern, however, is whether we’re entering into a period of unprecedented, exponential change, rather than a linear, manageable evolution.
Not so fast
In a thoughtful essay in The Correspondent, Jesse Frederick calmly explains “The world’s not changing faster than ever at all.” Describing “the cliché of our time,” Frederick summarizes the tired tropes of the futurists:
“They can be found at every convention: trendwatchers preaching the wonders of innovation. Organizations, the education sector, public administration – everyone has to adapt to the disruptive impact of technology. There you have it, the persistent conviction that the world is changing faster than ever. And that we are going to have to adapt faster than ever to keep up.”
Frederick turns to economic historians and specifically the history of inventions to compare the degree of technological transformations across eras. For example, he recounts the incredible gains in efficiency delivered by the modern washing machine. Pre-machine laundering processes required filling tubs, making fires to heat them, stirring and scrubbing items by hand, wringing them out, emptying tubs, heating irons, and so on. But by the mid-20th century, innovations in laundry machines and other household appliances reduced average weekly housework from 58 hours to 18. “And yet somehow,” Frederick writes, “a Kenmore Elite 4107 is less likely to make us think of innovation than an iPhone 6S Plus.”
Similarly, Frederick recalls the radically beneficial 20th-century transformation from horse travel to cars and streetcars, as well as equally impressive and life-saving developments in sanitation and healthcare. He suggests there are no comparable inventions in our own era. Sure, we have the internet and smartphones, but they have not been (as futurists would say) “game changers.” Frederick writes, “The difference is that between 1870 and 1970 there was not only an information revolution, but also revolutions in transport, sanitation, household appliances, entertainment, food, and clothing. Nearly every aspect of daily life changed.”
So why do we tend to think things are so different and dynamic today? Frederick offers two perceptive explanations. First, we have an experience bias: “Changes that we experience ourselves simply resonate with us more.”
Second, the efficiencies gained by the truly big transformations have ironically given us more time to observe and fret about all of this: “The technology of the past mainly created time, whereas today’s technology fills it.”
Too much time on our hands
In his essay on “The Myth That Americans Are Busier Than Ever,” Derek Thompson expands on this perception-skewing effect of having too much free time. Citing a study of average global work hours since the 1950’s, Thompson observes, “Every advanced economy in the world is working considerably fewer hours on average than it used to.” Countless technological improvements, including our example of the washing machine, have created unprecedented amounts of leisure time.
However, in what he calls “the irony of abundance, ” Thompson describes how we tend to fret over the many leisure activities at our disposal:
“Maybe knowing that there are 10 great TV shows you should watch, nine important books to read, eight bourgeois skills your child hasn’t mastered, seven ways you’re exercising wrong, six ways you haven’t sufficiently taken advantage of the city, etc., fosters a kind of metastasized paradox of choice, a perma-FOMO [fear of missing out]. Knowing exactly what we’re missing out makes us feel guilty or anxious about the limits of our time and our capacity to use it effectively.”
Meanwhile, researchers have shown that our culture esteems busyness and equates it with personal worth. A 2015 study by Havas Worldwide found that most people admit claiming to be busier than they really are. The reason, according to the report, is that “free time is now seen as an admission that you’re nonessential.” Our society celebrates “being overloaded,” so we feign busyness to assert our own value.
Importantly, Tim Maleeny, Chief Strategist for Havas, observes that the busyness virtue for individuals arises in part as a response hyped-up futurism, as we consume predictions of a “world of flying cars and talking toasters.” Amid celebrations of a busy, dynamic future, we feel compelled to present ourselves as equally dynamic.
In sum, then, it’s likely we live in a world which isn’t actually changing in unprecedented ways, but we have a predisposition to think that it is. Without proper perspective, we easily accept the notion that the world is getting too fast for our traditional systems to handle.
With regard to education, as noted in Part 1, it has become fashionable for commentators and adminstrators to recommend fundamental transformations of schools in order to prepare students for unprecedented, accelerated changes in work and society. In Part 3, we’ll explore the logic of these recommendations.