Today’s Exponential Rate of Change
Rick Fenwick, Ph.D.
In 1973, George Anderla, a French economist working for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development wanted a way to measure the exponential rate of change in the amount of information possessed within society. He reasoned that humanity accumulated knowledge from the very beginning of life to the year 1 A.D. He defined this as a measure of "known scientific facts" and labled it has "one jesus" in honor of Jesus who was born in that year. It has been estimated that humanity existed from 40,000 to 100,000 years prior to 1 A.D., so in a sense, it took perhaps 100,000 years to accumulate one unit of collective knowledge.
Anderla next estimated that it took 1500 years to double the amount of known scientific facts. So, by the year 1500 A.D. we had achieved two units of knowledge. The next calculation determined that in 250 years we achieved four units (1750). To get to eight units only took 150 years (1900) and to get to 16 units only took 50 years (1950). This is when the rate of doubling really began to pick up. Thirty-two units were reached in 10 years (1960) and 64 units in 7 years (1967). The next doubling (128) was reached in 6 years (1973). In 5 more years it doubled again and was at 512 units by 1982. After this, it is thought that doubling occurs in less than a year.
The late Robert Anton Wilson was an American author having written 35 books (Amazon: Robert Anton Wilson, 2017). In his book, Right Where You Are Sitting Now, he coined the term,"the Jumping Jesus Phenomenon," which popularized the calculations of George Anderla and focused on the implications of the information explosion. For example, Wilson believed human consciousness was expanding along with the information explosion. This line of thinking was continued by Jeremy Rifkin in his book (2009) describing the evolution of consciousness.
Critics of the doubling theory argued that although information is doubling at an exponential rate, much of the information is useless in terms of explaining human experience or contributing to scientific knowledge. For example, baseball statistics, stock quotes, and other types of information add no value to the human experience. The critics make a distinction between "information" and "real knowledge." They suggest that calculating real knowledge would show a completely different rate of change.
Alvin Toffler authored the best-selling classic book, Future Shock in 1970 and followed with The Third Wave (1980), and Powershift (1990) (Schneider, 2016). These books focused on the rapid rate of change and too much information as the new condition of our times and driving transformational change. He also made popular the phrase, “information overload” (Schneider). Toffler looked at the exponential increase in information as “waves” of technology (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2016). The first wave was agricultural lasting about 3000 years (Gazzaley & Rosen). The industrial revolution was the second wave lasting about 300 years. The third wave was the “computer wave” lasting about 30 years.
Gazzeley and Rosen (2016, p. 102) theorized that following this third wave has been a “series of rapid, short ‘wavelets,’” of about 3-5 years each. The described five wavelets as versions of a fourth wave: 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, and 4.5. They described 4.1 as the beginning of the Internet in the 1990s. They called wavelet 4.2 the “communication era” highlighted by the dominance of email. Wavelet 4.3 was characterized by mobile devices and wavelet 4.4 by the emergence of social media. Wavelet 4.5 was the introduction of the smart phone. They went on to predict the next wavelet as the merging of information technology with biological and medical science, which we are starting to see with all of the devices for tracking physiological data.
Gazzeley and Rosen reported a definition for a “wavelet” as when 50 million people have used the technology. This has been exponentially increasing as well. For example, they reported cell phones took 12 years to penetrate 50 million users. The Internet took 4 years. Social media (through Facebook) took only 2 years. Youtube took 1 year and the smartphone app, Angry Birds, hit 50 millions users in 35 days!
From prehistoric times to the birth of Jesus was one unit and it took 40,000 to 100,000 years to reach it. Today, we reached the 50 million user definition of “penetrating society” in 1 month. With the Internet of Things, there is bound to be an exponential increase in the volume of information being generated. I’m receiving emails from some of my devices today. For example, my Fitbit needs charged. Future shock is here!
Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The distracted mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
Rifkin, J. (2009).The empathic civilization: The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis. New York, NY: Penguin.
Robert Anton Wilson. (2017). Amazon.com Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Robert-Anton-Wilson/e/B000AP6Z8G/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1489514941&sr=1-2-ent
Schneider, K. (2016, June 29). Alvin Toffler, author of 'Future Shock,' dies at 87. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/30/books/alvin-toffler-author-of-future-shock-dies-at-87.html?_r=0
Wilson, R. A. (1992). Right where you are sitting now: Further tales of illuminati (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Ronin.