Friday, January 09, 2009

Is change accelerating or merely accumulating?

I get annoyed every time I hear somebody claim that "change is accelerating." Usually they are simply full of crap and simply mindlessly repeating a nostrum that they picked up from somebody else. I suspect that at best they simply mean that change is occurring constantly and the changes are accumulating at a decent clip. Mostly I suspect that they do not know precisely what they are saying at all and that their motivation is to arouse passion rather than to enlighten.

To use the simple physical metaphor of distance, velocity, and acceleration, if you are driving down the highway at a constant velocity your distance traveled continues to grow at a constant rate. Over time, the magnitude of the distance traveled can begin to seem overwhelming, but that is not due to any ongoing acceleration.

To be fair, sometimes people refer to "accelerating change" to mean exerting an extra effort to force change to occur or to force change to occur at a faster pace. Still, once the change is underway, the actual rate of change is not necessarily accelerating.

There also seems to be a tendency for people to misguidedly label a change or process to be "exponential" when in fact the overall lifecycle may not be exponential at all. At best, a process may be exponential for relatively short periods of time when the magnitude is relatively small and growth is relatively easy, but very quickly various limitations are usually encountered and the process suddenly slows to a much more sedate pace or even reverses. What is the point of accelerating at an exponential rate for a short time if very soon you will begin decelerating at an exponential rate? Better to simply describe a process as a bell curve or parabolic than mislead by calling it exponential.

Slapping the "exponential" or "accelerating" label on a process may engender great excitement, enthusiasm, passion, and media attention, but rarely enlightens us as to the underlying nature of the phenomenon.

-- Jack Krupansky


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