Giving Thanks for The Law of Accelerating Returns

For the past few months, I’ve been diving into the world of show programming again, helping MediaPost put together the upcoming Email Insider Summit up in Park City. One of the keynotes for the Summit, delivered by Charles W. Swift, VP of Strategy and Marketing Operations for Hearst Magazines, is going to tackle a big question, “How do companies keep up with the ever accelerating rate of change of our culture?”

After an initial call with Swift, I did some homework and reacquainted myself with Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. Shortly after, I had to stop because my brain hurt. Now, I would like to pass that unique experience along to you.

In an interview that is now 12 years old, Kurzweil explained the concept, using biological evolution as an analogy. I’ll try to make this fast. Earth is about 4.6 billion years old. The very first life appeared about 3.8 billion years ago. It took another 1.7 billion years for multicellular life to appear. Then, about 1.2 billion years later, we had something called the Cambrian Explosion. This was really when the diversity of life we recognize today started. If you’ve been keeping track, you know that it took the earth 4.1 of it’s 4.6 billion year history, or about 90% of the time since the earth was formed, to produce complex life forms of any kind.

Things started to move much quicker at that point. Amphibians and reptiles appeared about 350 million years ago, dinosaurs appeared 225 million years ago, mammals 200 million years ago, dinosaurs disappeared about 70 million years ago, the first great apes appeared about 15 million years ago and we homo sapiens have only been around for 200,000 years or so. And, as a species, we really have only made much of dent in the world in the last 10,000 years of our history. In the entire history of the world, that represents a very tiny 0.00022% slice. But consider how much the world has changed in that 10,000 years.

Accelerating Returns

Kurzweil’s Law says that, like biology, technology also evolves exponentially. It took us a very long time to do much of anything at all. The wheel, stone tools and fire took us tens of thousands of years to figure out. But now, technological paradigms shifts happen in decades or less. And the pace keeps accelerating. The Law of Accelerating Returns states that in the first 20 years of the 21st century, we’ll have progressed as much as we did during the entire 20th century. Then we’ll double that progress again by 2034, and double it once more by 2041.

Let me put this in perspective. At this rate, if my youngest daughter – born in 1995 – lives to be 100 (not an unlikely forecast), she will see more technological change in her life than in previous 20,000 years of human history!

This is one of those things we probably don’t think about because, frankly, it’s really hard to wrap your head around this. The math shows why predictability is flying out the window and why we have to get comfortable reacting to the unexpected. It would also be easy to dismiss it, but Kurzweil’s concepts are sound. Evolution does accelerate exponentially, as has our rate of technological advancement. Unless the later showed a dramatic reversal or slowing down, the future will move much much faster than we can possibly imagine.

The reason change accelerates is that the technology we develop today builds the foundations required for the technological leaps that will happen tomorrow. Agriculture set the stage for industry. Industry enabled electricity. Electricity made digital technology possible. Digital technology enables nanotechnology. And so on. Each advancement sets the stage for the next, and we progress from stage to stage more rapidly each time.

So, for your extended long weekend, if you’re sitting in a turkey-induced tryptophan daze and there’s no game on, try wrapping your head around The Law of Accelerating Returns.

Happy Thanksgiving. You’re welcome.

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