The Roots of Progress

Do we get better or worse at adapting to change?

Verner Vinge, in a classic 1993 essay, described “the Singularity” as an era where progress becomes “an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control.”

The idea that technological change might accelerate to a pace faster than we can keep up with is a common concern. Almost three decades earlier, Alvin Toffler coined the term “future shock”, defining it as “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”:

I believe that most human beings alive today will find themselves increasingly disoriented and, therefore, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environment. I believe that the malaise, mass neurosis, irrationality, and free-floating violence already apparent in contemporary life are merely a foretaste of what may lie ahead unless we come to understand and treat this psychological disease….

Change is avalanching down upon our heads and most people are utterly unprepared to cope with it….

… we can anticipate volcanic dislocations, twists and reversals, not merely in our social structure, but also in our hierarchy of values and in the way individuals perceive and conceive reality. Such massive changes, coming with increasing velocity, will disorient, bewilder, and crush many people.

(Emphasis added. Toffler later elaborated on this idea in a book titled Future Shock.)

Change does indeed come ever faster. But most commentary on this topic assumes that we will therefore find it ever more difficult to adapt.

Is that actually what has happened over the course of human history? At first glance, it seems to me that we have actually been getting better at adapting, even relative to the pace of change.

Some examples

Our Stone Age ancestors, in nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, had very little ability to adapt to change. Change mostly happened very slowly, but flood, drought, or climate change could dramatically impact their lives, with no option but to wander in search of a better land.

Mediterranean kingdoms in the Bronze Age had much more ability to adapt to change than prehistoric tribes. But they were unable to handle the changes that led to the collapse of that civilization in the 12th century BC. No civilizational collapse on that level has happened since the Dark Ages.

The printing press ultimately helped amplify the theological conflict that led to over a century of religious wars; evidently, 16th-century Europe found it very difficult to adapt to a new ability for ideas to spread. The Internet has certainly created some social turmoil, and we’re only about 30 years into it, but so far I think its negative impact is on track to be less than a hundred years of war engulfing a continent.

In the 1840s, when blight hit the Irish potato, it caused a million deaths, and another million emigrated, causing Ireland to lose a total of a quarter of its population, from which it has still not recovered. Has any modern event caused any comparable population loss in any developed country?

In 1918, when an influenza pandemic hit, the world had much less ability to adapt to that change than we did in 2020 when covid hit.

In the 20th century, people thrown out of work read classified ads in the newspapers or went door-to-door looking for jobs. Today, they pick up an app and sign up for gig work.

What about occupational hazards from dangerous substances? Matches using white phosphorus, invented in 1830, caused necrosis of the jaw in factory workers, but white phosphorus was not widely banned until 1912, more than 80 years later. Contrast this with radium paint, which was used to make glow-in-the-dark dials since about 1914; this also caused jaw necrosis. I can’t find exactly when radium paint was phased out, but it seems to have been by 1960 or maybe 1970; so at most 56 years, faster than we reacted to phosphorus. (If we went back further to look at occupational hazards that existed in antiquity, such as smoke inhalation or lead exposure, I think we would find that they were not addressed for centuries.)

These are just some examples I came up with off the top of my head; I haven’t done a full survey and I may be affected by confirmation bias. Are there good counterexamples? Or a more systematic treatment of this question?

Why we get better at adapting to change

The concern about change happening faster than we can adapt seems to assume that our adaptation speed is fixed. But it’s not. Our adaptation speed increases, along with the speed of other types of change. There are at least two reasons:

First, detection. We have a vast scientific apparatus constantly studying all manner of variables of interest to us—so that, for instance, when new chemicals started to deplete the ozone layer, we detected the change and forecast its effects before widespread harm was done. At no prior time in human history would this have been possible.

Second, response. We have an internet to spread important news instantly, and a whole profession, journalists, who consider it their sacred duty to warn the public of impending dangers, especially dangers from technology and capitalism. We have a transportation network to mobilize people and cargo and rush them anywhere on the globe they are needed. We have vast and flexible manufacturing capacity, powered by a robust energy supply chain. All of this creates enormous resilience.

Solutionism, not complacency, about adaptation

Even if I’m right about the trend so far, there is no guarantee that it will continue. Maybe the pace of change will accelerate more than our ability to adapt in the near future. But I now think that if that happened, it would be the reversal of a historical trend, rather than an exacerbation of an already-increasing problem.

I am still sympathetic to the point that adaptation is always a challenge. But now I see progress as helping us meet that challenge, as it helps us meet all challenges.

Toffler himself seemed to agree, ending his essay on a solutionist note:

Man’s capacity for adaptation may have limits, but they have yet to be defined. … modern man should be able to traverse the passage to postcivilization. But he can accomplish this grand historic advance only if he forms a better, clearer, stronger conception of what lies ahead.


Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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