Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Living in Exponential Times

Originally posted on February 1, 2011

What a phrase, “exponential times.”  A five minute YouTube clip emphasizes this:  . I was told that the Sony Corporation played that clip at an annual shareholder meeting. My friend, Ed, who sent me this went on to say: “It has ever been thus, but in exponents there is a cusp where things do change rapidly. Imagine you are in Yankee Stadium, and that it is a bowl which can hold water. Imagine that a drop of water falls at second #1, two at second #2, four at second #3, etc. (this is exponential growth). A few hours later there is a puddle in the middle of Yankee stadium. A minute later everyone is under water! That is what it’s like to be at the cusp of exponential growth.”

“Exponential times” is a good description of the next phase beyond the early postmodernist era: Man developing trends are accelerating in their rates of change, and this itself must be considered. It’s not just that things are changing—that’s not new—; but in the olden days we used to be able to keep up. If we don’t extinguish ourselves from our folly, some day they may look back on this era of the centuries just before and just after the turn of the millennium as the “Exponential Era.”

The Olden Days

This phrase always used to range from reminiscences of life in small-town and mainly rural America to the circumstances a couple of hundred years ago. We told stories about kings and princesses, but they weren’t just olden, they were another world. I’ve begun to talk about my own childhood in the mid-20th century as olden days, though, because the rules for how things are and should be have changed so fundamentally and in so many ways. These shifts are addressed on many other of my blog entries, paradigm shifts, world-view shifts—and what’s weird is that a good major shift or two could fill a lifetime whereas now it only leads to the tipping point into yet further shifts in a decade or so. Wowsie-Woozie! That’s the expression for hardly being able to keep up.

Implications for Education

In the olden days when information was not immediately accessible in almost-too-much volume, it sort of made sense to teach kids the basic information they didn’t know. Promoting creativity was irrelevant to producing good workers. But that’s all changed. Knowledge is easy, and routine labor can be either automated or outsourced. What’s needed and rare and worth paying for is a quality that can’t be subjected to the same factory-processing as ordinary schooling or work. In such roles, authorities were experts who knew what needed to be done; but in the realm of exponential change that knowledge is not so rare; what’s needed is the knowledge how to bring forth new ideas and a readiness and willingness to collaborate and innovate.

Another friend, Connie Lawrence, sent me another clip from a TED lecture in 2006: a talk by Ken Robinson about education  . Now teaching for creativity requires a key element that the lecturer notes and I underline: What kind of classroom is it in which kids are supported in remaining unafraid to make mistakes? The activity of encouragement, the nature of the tasks designed, the invitation for feedback, all are key. The curricular content not so much—considering that some of the information may be obsolete within a few years.

Because I’ve been interested in creativity, his approach was relevant. (I have been associated for almost 45 years with a sub-field of psychiatry called psychodrama, a method of therapeutic role playing invented by Jacob L. Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974). That method was in fact only one of many applications of a primary philosophical idea: Creativity is a primary force in the cosmos, and what can we do to come up with ways to implement it in our culture. In a wider sense, then, psychodramatic methods can be adapted to non “therapeutic” approaches ranging from social action and education to spiritual development or recreation. )

For some interesting reasons, I agree with one phrase Robinson used in his talk referenced above: Creativity is as important as literacy. The key point is to recognizes that literacy isn’t so much knowing the information that comes with reading, but rather learning the component skills, the tools, that refine the mind’s capacity and expand it so that it can integrate and be creative with both sides of the brain. (In a similar sense, science is not about what is taught in science classes as the results of scientific investigation, but beyond the content, science refers to the whole infrastructure of methods and attitudes as to how to check out whether a seemingly coherent idea is really so or it is just an illusion. (Not that I’m against illusions—but it’s useful also to know when to dissolve them and when to get involved in building more functionally relevant and encompassing illusions; but that’s another essay.)

That’s enough for now: I wanted to share these two mind-provoking videos.

7 Responses to “Living in Exponential Times”

  • Edward Hug says:

    The other thing about getting close to a cusp of an exponentially growing situation, is that things shift suddenly. Before the automobile, the horse manure was piling up on streets, and some predicted it would reach the first floor windows. Well, horses went out of favor as the automobile displaced them. AND no one could have predicted the automobile. So the question: what is coming around the bend? Surely something, but there is no way to really know. Yes, “creativity” is one approach. In the sciences & engineering field I think it is grounding in general principles rather than developing too specific skills that will be obsolete in 5 years.

  • Adam Blatner says:

    Yes, Ed, what you describe is called a “disruptive technology.” I just learned about this most intriguing phrase last year. It adds to the wows-osity of this and invites us to cultivate the component skills of mental flexibility. There’s learning to walk, and then learning to swim, which requires a degree of un-learning to rely on conventional cues of gravity and ground; and now we are invited to learn to maneuver metaphorically in gravity-free space! Warmly, Adam

  • John Swardstrom says:

    In a finite world there cannot be continued growth of population or food production or non-renewable resources.

    I agree with those scientists that say the world population is in overshoot. The present population cannot be sustained without fossil fuels, which are being depleted.

    The present situation in Egypt illustrates the situation with respect to population and resources.

  • Adam Blatner says:

    Yes, John. Part of this is optimistic, looking forward to new forms of creativity; but part is if not pessimistic, at least clearly recognizing the immensity of the challenge of consciousness raising regarding population, the elimination of natural population controls by disease, the continued exhaustion of limited natural resources, and other ecological, religious, and social threats. My hope is to promote the use of tools for consciousness-raising.

  • Edward Hug says:

    On “disruptive technology”: we do seem to be in the midst of a storm of it. The long distance telephone business model disrupted by VOIP (voice over Internet), the Internet itself and its disruptive effects on news media, Amazon’s Kindle (and its competitors) challenging the traditional book world, and much more. My viewpoint is that man’s mind/brain got to where it by confronting changing environments (ice ages and the lot). Disruptions challenge our adaptive capacities, and our adaptive capacities grow as a result.
    As for “population growth”: the future is anyway a mystery. I don’t think it is possible to conceive what the world will be like when we reach 10 billion souls. I do remember reading a series of New Yorker articles some years ago on Holland: that their population density exceeds most nations on earth, notwithstanding which they are net exporters of agricultural produce. The same series commented on the American hunger for “space” vs the Dutch sense of economizing space. So I don’t think we can properly imagine what the world can be like at 10 billion.
    I get more concerned about “turbo-capitalism”, unbridled capitalism free from regulation, taxation, legal limits, which create a world of enfranchised rich and disenfranchised poor.

  • Edward Hug says:

    On the Machine replacing Man in evolution (roughly what Moreno framed as the tyranny of the cultural conserve):

    I once heart Claude Shannon (father of “information theory”) speak at M.I.T., saying (among many other things) that he thought the Machine would replace Man in evolution just as Man had replaced the Monkey. I thought, at the time .. hey, it is already happening: look at human beings that “choose” to live in high-rise bureaucratic architectures, function as if part of some larger Machine. As time goes on, we have only increased the Machine-like aspects of our civilization.

    The latest giant step in this direction was the Supreme Court’s “Citizen United vs Federal Election Commission (2010), making into law that “the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.”

    If you think of a corporation as a “Machine” (as I do), to equate Person and Machine is a gigantic step toward the Machine replacing Man in evolution (as Claude Shannon had foreseen).

  • […] point I am moved to note today is that we live in an era I’ve called exponential times, and that a skill that needs to be developed to cope with this time in cultural evolution is the […]

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