Quick and Slow Change
One remarkable fact about the world around us is the speed of change. Our lifestyles have changed dramatically over the past century, and even the past decade.
Earlier tonight, over dinner, some of my older friends reminisced about a national blackout fifteen years ago. They recalled how out of the loop they were, without a mobile phone to spread gossip about the source of the blackout or tips on dealing with it.
Only fifteen years later, things are so different. I had a very unpleasant experience when I went to Singapore a couple of weeks back, only to find out that our mobile phone roaming coverage was not as brilliant as our service providers would have it.
Without a way to make contact with a friend I was supposed to meet, things went haywire rather quickly. We had not arranged an explicit meeting place, acting on the assumption that our phones would work. Instead, we agreed to meet in the general vicinity of a library — and when we could not contact each other upon arrival, we were forced to grope around blindly, looking for each other. (In the end we met up in the library lobby.)
Looking back half a century, the things that have changed appear even more dramatic. The oft-touted magical internet is one invention that only a few visionaries had thought of in the 1950s.
But, as economist Paul Krugman was careful to point out about a decade ago, the pace of change may have actually slowed in the past few decades.
Sure, I may be able to listen to MP3s on my computer which I downloaded from somewhere — a step up over the records of half a century ago. But how much of a difference is that, when you consider that a century ago, it was all but impossible for the common man to listen to a recording of music? The changes between 1907 and 1957 are far more drastic than those between 1957 and 2007.
Regardless, the changes we see remain drastic in absolute terms. It is thus tempting to think that certain laws governing human behaviour no longer apply, having been tossed out with the quick pace of technological and perhaps even societal change.
This thinking was perhaps most evident with the "New Economy" touted prior to the 2001 faltering of information technology companies. It was thought that now it didn't matter how horrible your business's idea was — technology would make up for that. Of course, this thinking proved to be wrong.
Recently, we saw a perhaps milder version of this thinking with the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States. Many investors thought that there was no way securitised mortgages could falter — the way these loans had been bundled into securities and sold ensured they would be profitable investments. Of course, this also turned out to be wrong.
So does this mean there are some immutable laws of human nature, human behaviour? I would not go so far. There may be physical laws which cannot be bent — the laws of gravity, for instance — but I think in the long run, how we think and behave may be altered. Democracy and the nation-state, two concepts very predominant in our thinking today, were all but unheard of five hundred years ago.
But, of course, as John Maynard Keynes memorably reminded us, in the long run, we are all dead. Whatever change in human thinking that occurs in our lifetimes is a quiet, gradual change — change which does not manifest itself until it has accumulated with other small changes to form one giant lump of dynamism, long after we have returned to dust.
Technological change inevitably has its consequences for human behaviour and thinking. Already, I can see subtle differences in how my generation is approaching things from generations past, thanks to the privilege of the internet.
But at the same time, these subtle differences are far too small to make a significant impact on how social scientists approach how we think and behave. These subtle differences must first add up in the long run, after the first internet generation has passed on, before we can really say for sure that our fundamental nature and paradigms have been altered.