ACCELERATING DISRUPTION

By Mike Cronin

You’ve probably heard of the concept that computer speed doubles roughly every 12-18 months. This concept is called Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of the computer chip company Intel. He made his observation in 1965, and it has largely been accurate.  Moore’s law is part of a larger phenomenon, something called the accelerating rate of change.

Think of it this way:  A farmer from the 1500s transported 200 years into the future would not have been amazed by the technological advancements to farming in the 1700s. For the vast majority of people, technology simply didn’t change during their lifetimes.  Fast forward to the late 1800s: My maternal great grandmother crossed the plains in a covered wagon in the 1890s and settled in what is now the little town of Kiowa, Colorado. Steam technology existed then; she had probably heard of, or may have even ridden on a steam locomotive.  She might have sent and received telegrams.  But most of the new technology of the day was concentrated in the coastal cities. Pioneers and settlers were still using wagons and draft animals. A Roman Centurion from 1800 years in the past might have been amazed by a steam locomotive or a telegraph, but he would have found her Conestoga wagon unremarkable.  This same great-grandmother lived to watch men walk on the moon.

In her lifetime, gasoline and diesel-powered cars and trucks replaced the horse as the primary means of personal travel.  The automobile industry disrupted the horse culture; now horseback riding is primarily a hobby for people who can afford to keep horses. Telephone, radio, and television grew to become the primary means of sending and/or receiving information. These technologies disrupted (but didn’t eliminate) mail service. She was born at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution and lived through the Gilded Age, the Jet Age, and the Space Age.

She died in the early 1970s.  Since then, the rate of change has only accelerated.  The computer network that would become the internet was just getting started in the 1960s when Moore made his observation; now it is the predominate feature of modern life. Television and radio gave rise to the “mainstream media,” i.e. the big three networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC.  Satellite and computer technology allowed cable upstart CNN to join the club in 1980, followed soon after by other cable networks.  CNN disrupted the status quo and initiated the 24-hour news cycle.  The “big three” had to play catch-up.  Advances in internet speed and the invention of “hypertext mark-up language” (HTML), gave us the World Wide Web.  Within a decade of CNN disrupting the existing main-stream media, “the Web” enabled even more disruption. News aggregators. Blogs. Online magazines. Email and RSS feeds. And now: Streaming media. Smart phones. Wi-fi. Digital currency. AI. Fusion. Nano-tech. DNA editing. Laser weapons. Robots. Self-driving cars. With the accelerating rate of change has come the accelerating rate of disruption. In our lifetimes, we will experience more technological advancement than has been accomplished in the previous 20 millennia – if we can successfully ride the waves of disruption!

Directing our own Evolution?

e-dna-repair-cartoon

By Mike Cronin

We have global communications and transportation. In Europe, most of the Americas, and most of Asia at least, we have enough food to eat and wondrous technological gadgetry. Anyone labeled “middle class” today lives a far more luxurious lifestyle than royalty did less than a century ago.

Some of our most basic problems, such as bigotry, racism, and other social ills have been at least partially resolved, for at least part of the world.  Will we ever be able to finish the job?

I submit the answer does not lie within the bounds of governments and politicians,  It lies in diminishing the mismatch between the relatively steady pace of evolution and the accelerating rate of technological advancement. Our species may be on the cusp of such an advancement.

Human beings evolved on the plains of Africa.  We were smaller, slower, weaker, and had less effective sensory apparatus than the alpha predators.  We didn’t even have biological “weaponry” (such as fangs, horns, or claws) to defend ourselves.  How did we achieve mastery over lions, leopards, and hyenas?

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From “2001: A Space Odyssey:” A human ancestor learns tool usage

We lived brutal, tribal-centric lives as we evolved higher intelligence. Other animals adapt to their surroundings, humans learned to adapt their surroundings to themselves.  We learned to use fire to cook meat.  Cooking made it easier for our bodies to absorb the protein value of the meat, which allowed our brains to add more neurons per volume than our primate cousins – and other mammals with similar-sized, or even larger, brains than our own.

Other animals can use simple stick and stone tools; humans are the only species that tamed fire.  This started humans down the path of technological advancement. Fire. The wheel. Bronze. Iron. Steel. The lens. Science. Industry. Atomic energy. Space flight. Internet. But while our technology advances faster and faster, human evolution follows at a more leisurely pace…for the moment.

For example: We vilify adults who engage in any kind of sexual activity with minors, but the concept of “minor” is a modern legal distinction, not a biological one.  Girls reach physical maturity well before we consider them to be of sufficient emotional maturity to have children – because adults now live long enough to accumulate much more knowledge and wisdom from the ever-increasing store of knowledge and wisdom available that the gulf between a 25, or 35, or 55 year old man and a 13 year old girl renders a sexual relationship between them abhorrent to us.  But before the advent of civilization and the division of labor, humans that made it to 30 were elderly!  Most people died in their 20s or earlier of disease, tooth decay, or child birth.  It was necessary for a girl who was physically old enough to bear children to start doing so – for the sake of the survival of the clan or tribe.  The modern concept of maturity didn’t enter into it.  Our distant human ancestors didn’t have to worry about homework, getting a job, health insurance, paying the rent, career advancement, global warming, elections, or taxes.  They had to worry about finding food for themselves even as they sought to avoid becoming dinner for a big cat.

ALL humans lived like that as recently as 10,000 years ago – a mere eye-blink in evolutionary timescales, and a few, isolated, human cultures still live that way to this day. Culturally, we have had varying degrees of success in putting aside our physical differences in gender or coloration or belief and living together, but there is still friction, conflict, and in parts of the world, warfare over these differences. It takes enlightenment to put aside the tribalism that defined our social development for untold millennia and behave at a higher level than out stone-age ancestors, who’s DNA still forms the cornerstone of our genetic makeup.

Treating people as property, warring against competitor tribes for resources, superstitions about unseen forces that can literally blow apart a mountain, light up the sky, and move the earth, fear of the unknown – they all come from the same place – from our infancy as a sentient, sapient, speciesSome recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering may have put us on the verge of being able to routinely and casually alter our own DNA – in effect, to design our own evolution.  But we aren’t there yet.

Realizing this about ourselves may herald our transition to “toddlerhood” in the climb up the ladder of species maturity.  I gave thanks on Thursday that I don’t have to worry that my lack of fang or claw will doom me to fall prey to an animal that has them; that in fact I may live to see our species make its first self-directed evolutionary steps – if our scientists can overcome our cavemen!