Jonathan Smith

Jonathan Smith

Jonathan Smith

The Pace of Change

I’ve felt unsettled by a sense of the pace of change recently, particularly after a conversation with my daughter Ruby about ChatGPT around Christmas and us sharing some links since, including this one on how Large Language Models are causing schools to fret or this about how it might impact jobs.

In truth, this disquite has been with me for a while, partly from doing a job that is working right in the middle of major socio-technological transformations, but also thinking about the impacts this ‘Great acceleration’ is likely to have on my kids’ futures. (Well captured in the ‘hockey stick’ graph, showing how rapidly society has changed in the past 200 years, compared to all of human history before that.)

And maybe it has also been about me having a birthday recently. I can never really square how recent but also distant the past seems, or how the future is now but also not here yet. This video of children in 1966 (the year I was born) imagining what 2000 might be like, courtesy of BBC Tomorrow’s World, nails it, feeling both long ago and strangely prescient.

Tech commentator, Azem Azhar also certainly thinks change is getting faster. In Exponential, one of the excellent Christmas books my kids bought me, Azhar tracks the development of transistor technology, from the 1960 cost per transistor of $8 to the current cost of a few billionths of a dollar, but also our inability to really conceptually deal with that speed of change.

ODI’s report on Data and the 4th Industrial Revolution says the same, showing that at the turn of the millennium, only 7% of the world was online, where today this is nearer 6o%.

As ever, change is not necessarily positive or negative - but is always disruptive. Right now however, the sheer complexity is significant. Adam Tooze describes this as the coming ‘polycrisis’, where all these changes come together at once in an unpredictable, nonlinear way.

The power of AI and Data may well be a large part of this as historian, Anselm Kusters outlines here.

But before we’re all overcome by ‘millenarian gloom’, Azem Azhar does offer some hope and a call to action to build a world in which “we are the ones who decide what we want from the tools we build”.

All power to that!

Which brings me neatly on to one of my other favourite Christmas present books – The System by James Ball. In it he deconstructs the internet right back to the people who build it, the cables that link it, the money that funds it and reminds you that, at heart, it is a very tangible human made creation.

Which, as ever, raises questions on control and purpose. One of my best listens this year so far is Salome Viljoen on the Tech Wont Save Us podcast, on why we need to democratise data. She talks about how important it is to get the framework and vocabulary right to understand things, to build the right response.

Which nicely doubles back to my third Xmas gift book - Landmarks by Robert Mcfarlane. This is an exploration of the many names communities in the British Isles give to the detail of the landscape in which they live.

Mcfarlane warns that when we stop or don’t name things like the nature around us, we can easily lose a sense of the things that are important, enabling their destruction or loss.

We haven’t even really started to name, in any meaningful common sense way, what our new datafied world and its landscapes look like. A prompt to get on with it a bit more speedily and creatively.

And so finally on to the last links in this chain. A great piece in Pitchfork about the recent DJ Kicks compilation by Theo Parrish - a tribute to Detroit Techno. It brings together remembering, taking control of technology, digital change, resistance, community, race, identity, escape, creativity, futurism, meaning making and the very human urge to dance all into one place - in a place that was at the heart of the 2nd industrial Revolution no less!

So in the end, we might be in the ‘Great Acceleration’, it might fill us with fear, but it sure does have a damn fine soundtrack. Enjoy….

Do you collect, use or share data?

We can help you build trust with your customers, clients or citizens

 Read more

Do you want data to be used in your community’s interests?

We can help you organise to ensure that data benefits your community

 Read more