Is it me or does anybody else feel like the world moves faster and faster every time? Sometimes it feels like we can’t even understand what’s going on anymore and that things we took for granted are now becoming obsolete, like privacy. Everything we know is changing dramatically. Self-driving cars, online schools, implanted chips, nanobots and 3D printers in space. People in the know like to call it exponential change.
But, what is exponential change? And what is going?
To begin with, I think it’s important to understand how things have been in the past. For most of our lives, and many would argue for our existence as a species, change has happened linearly. In other words, from your grandparents generation to your generation there would be change, but it was incremental and for the most part your way of living stayed the same. The further you go back in time the more so it was like this. Imagine a 14th century farmer, what he lived and what his son and grandchild lived was almost the same. They could relate on a lot of levels and pass information on what the next one could expect in the years to come. As time has gone on, that change has begun to pick up speed and what one generation lived through then next no longer even understands the context.
For example, I was talking to my grandmother the other day and she was telling me how she used to go to school in a horse. In a horse! Imagine that! I can’t even begin to fathom what that’s like. I have grown up with cars and planes and am getting my MBA online. Sometimes I even check my assignments on my phone. The difference in what she lived through and what I am living is dramatic. It’s not about a nicer classroom, or nicer horse for that matter, it’s completely different. What’s more, is that the pace at which things are changing is increasing at even faster and faster rates. Anybody who’s been paying attention the last 5 years knows what I’m talking about. The difference between how my younger friends grew up and how I grew up is impressive and we’re not even 10 years apart!
The best example that I’ve been given of what exponential growth looks like is the following: “Imagine a magic pipette. It is magic because every drop of water that comes out of it will double in size every minute. So the first minute there is one drop, the second minute there are two drops, the third minute four drops, the fourth minute eight drops and so on… This is an example of exponential growth.
Now, imagine a normal sized football stadium. In this stadium you are sitting on the seat at the very top of the stadium, with the best overview of the whole stadium. To make things more interesting, imagine the stadium is completely water-tight and that you cannot move from your seat. The first drop from the magic pipette is dropped right in the middle of the field, at 12pm. Here’s the question: Remembering that this drop grows exponentially by doubling in size every minute, how much time do you have to free yourself from the seat and leave the stadium before the water reaches your seat at the very top? Think about it for a moment. Is it hours, days, weeks, months?
The answer: You have exactly until 12:49pm. It takes this tiny magic drop less than 50 minutes to fill a whole football stadium with water. This is impressive! But it gets better: At what time do you think the football stadium is still 93% empty? Take a guess.
The answer: At 12:45pm. So, you sit and watch the drop growing, and after 45 minutes all you see is the playing field covered with water. And then, within four more minutes, the water fills the whole stadium. This means that you think you are safe because it seems that you have plenty of time left, whereas due to the exponential growth you really have to take immediate action if you want to have any chance of getting out of this situation.”
So what does all this mean for our future? What does it mean that things are changing faster and faster? How do we embrace the change and thrive on it? These are questions that we’ll have to start thinking about as we grow up and that I look forward to exploring in upcoming posts.