The Pace of Change

The pace of change, declares Jim Roberts of the New York Times, gets faster and faster.

I suspect most historians would find that statement s0mewhat irritating. In a basic sense, the pace of change can’t be getting faster, unless time itself is speeding up. People still grow old at the same rate; apples still take the same time to fall from trees. It’s the kind of thing lazy undergrads often resort to: the past was slower and simpler.

A person whose village was struck by the bubonic plague, or converted to Protestantism, or overrun by napoleon’s troops, or transformed by the arrival of the railroad, didn’t experience the pace of change as slow, they experienced it as wrenching, and rapid. Droughts and floods change things quickly indeed. The image of the empty cradle haunted a society plagued by sudden infant mortality.

But Roberts refers, as comments like this alway do, to technological change, and he points out that as soon as the New York Times came out with a workable web edition, iphones and other mobile devices changed the “game” again.

But even there, the newspaper business has never, ever been static. A colonial era newspaper looks nothing like a newspaper from the 1830s, which looks nothing like a newspaper from the 1850s, which in turn looks nothing like a newspaper from the 1890s. In every era, newspapers were confronted with new communications technologies: a reliable postal system, then the telegraph, the formation of the Associated Press; then cheap paper, then mass lithography: telephones, then radio, then satellites; the ability to print photographs, the rise of the tabloid format, television; the ability to print in color; digital typography. In my lifetime there were morning and evening editions of newspapers. That vanished long before the digital era. Change has been a constant in the newspaper business.

But is change going on faster? I’d say no. The structure of information is different: we get information from farther away more quickly. But as I’ve argued before, there’s no more information now than there’s ever been, we just focus our attention on different things. To a preindustrial farmer, the natural world was packed with information that we mostly can’t see, information about the weather, about the health of animals and plants, about what was useful and what was poison. A modern person sees a stand of trees. A preindustrial woodworker saw lots of information: different species of tree with different properties. There were oaks and hickories and chestnuts and pines, each kind of wood suited for a different purpose. The woodlot was dense with information.

It’s certainly true that the structure of information has changed a great deal in the last decade. But is the pace of change faster? The telegraph changed the structure of information a great deal; so did radio, so did TV. In 1920 only a few hundred enthusiasts had radios. By 1930, there was practically a radio in every household. In 1950 no one had a TV: by 1960 tv was ubiquitous. In less than a decade each of those technologies created new sources new authorities, for information.

Roberts sees the transition from a Digital edition to a mobile edition as rapid change, and I’m not doubting he experienced it that way. But in the 1960s, characters on Star Trek used something very much like an ipad. The point being, the idea for the ipad was already present, and deeply installed in popular culture.

We all know what Jim Roberts means: things seem to change more quickly. It’s exactly what people felt in the 1880s, when they talked about “the annihilation of space and time.” That is, 130 years ago.

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