Waking Up in Time

Acceleration - The Quickening Pace

. . . these most brisk and giddy-paced times.

William Shakespeare

The pace of life is speeding up. Hardly the most startling statement. As most of us are only too aware, change comes more and more rapidly. Technological breakthroughs spread through society in years rather than centuries. Calculations that would have taken decades are now made in minutes. Communication that used to take months happens in seconds. Development in every area is happening more and more rapidly.

As a result more and more of us are living in the fast lane - many in overdrive. There is more information to absorb, more challenges to meet, more skills to learn, more tasks to accomplish. Yet the time to fit it all in seems to be getting less and less.

Worse still, there is no sign that things are slowing down. On the contrary, the pace of life is set to get faster and faster, taking us deeper and deeper into what Alvin Toffler called “Future Shock . . . the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”

Will we be able to cope? This, argued Toffler, is the challenge facing us. To learn to handle ever-more rapid change without burning out or breaking down.

Not only is accelerating change putting us under stress, it is also putting increasing pressure on the planet. There are ever-growing numbers of us to feed, clothe, and house. Our waste is pouring into the air, the soil, and the seas many times faster than our environment can absorb it. Holes are appearing in the ozone layer, while forests are disappearing at alarming rates - as are the species that live in them. Seldom in its history has the earth changed so rapidly.

The faster the world around us changes, the more we are forced to let go of any cozy notions we might have of what the future will be like. No one today can predict with any degree of certainty how things will be in a year’s time, or even six months’time. When global stockmarkets can crash without warning, political walls crumble overnight, countries invade each other in a day, and ecological disasters shatter our illusions of control, we are forced more and more to live in the present.

To live with continued acceleration and all it brings will take more than simply learning to manage better. It will involve a complete revision of our thinking about who we are, what we really want, and what life is all about.

An Eternal Trend

Looking back over history it is clear that acceleration is not just a twentieth-century phenomenon. Change occurs much faster today than it did a thousand years ago - medieval architecture and agriculture, for instance, varied very little over the period of a century. But even then change occurred much faster than it did in prehistoric times - Stone Age tools remained unchanged for thousands of years.

This gathering of pace is not confined to humanity; it is a pattern that stretches back through the history of life on Earth. According to currently accepted theories - and it is well worth remembering that most scientific theories change with time - human beings first appeared on Earth about a quarter-million years ago. Mammals started evolving much earlier, about 60 million years ago. And the first living cells appeared much earlier still - some 3.5 billion years ago.

Nor did the trend begin there. Before any living system could evolve other equally important developments had to occur. This too was an evolutionary process that accelerated.

The Evolution of the Elements

Most cosmologists now believe that the Universe started somewhere between 8 and 15 billion years ago as an unimaginably hot and extremely compact region of pure energy. Intense internal pressures caused this Universe to expand very rapidly - creating the so-called “Big Bang.” As the Universe expanded it cooled and condensed into elementary particles - electrons, positrons, photons, and neutrinos. Cooling further, these particles began forming stable relationships with each other, giving birth to the very simplest of atoms: hydrogen and helium. Matter had been born.

It took millions of years, however, for more complex atoms to form. This could only happen when simpler atoms chanced to collide and combine. Over many eons all the elements lighter than iron were created through this fusion process. But at iron the chain stops.

The synthesis of heavier elements (e.g. cobalt, nickel, copper, gold, uranium) requires the input of additional energy. This could not happen for several billion years, until the lighter elements had formed stars, and these stars had themselves become “supernova” - the massive thermonuclear furnaces created when stars collapse in upon themselves. From the supernova that preceded our own Sun came most of the heavier elements we now find on planet Earth - and in every cell of our bodies. Matter had evolved, but it had taken ten billion years to create these hundred or so chemical elements.

The Quickening of Life

This chemical diversity became the foundation-stone for living systems, and as soon as life became established, the rate of development speeded up. Changes took place not over billions of years, but over millions - and later even faster.

Such lengthy time-scales are so far from our everyday experience that it is hard to appreciate just how rapidly evolution has been gaining speed. To get a better feel for these changes, let us chart the evolution of life against a more familiar visual image - New York’s tallest building, the quarter-mile-high World Trade Center.

If we make street level the formation of our planet 4.6 billion years ago, then the first living cells appeared about 3.5 billion years ago, on the twenty-fifth floor of the building’s 108 stories. Photosynthesis evolved around the fiftieth floor, and bacteria that breathed oxygen came another ten floors later - more than half way up.

More complex cells, capable of sexual reproduction and with a central nucleus, appeared around the seventieth floor. Multicellular organisms came another ten floors above that - and crustaceans ruled the waves on the ninety-fourth floor.

Fish appeared on the ninety-seventh floor, and crawled out of the sea on the ninety-ninth.

Dinosaurs reigned on floors 104 to 107.

And mammals arrived on the top floor.

But Homo erectus first did not walk on two legs until a few inches from the top of the top floor. It had taken 99.99 percent of life’s journey to reach this step - and humanity was only just beginning.

The Neanderthals with their enlarged brains, simple tools, and tribal culture appeared in the last quarter of an inch. Then came Cro-Magnon people with clothes, painting, and language.

The Pharaohs ruled Egypt a fiftieth of an inch from the top. And the Greek and Roman empires thrived a hundredth of an inch above that.

The Renaissance occurred in the top one-thousandth of an inch - less than the thickness of a layer of paint.

While the whole of modern history occupies but the thickness of a microscopic bacterium.

And the age of the microchip, rock’n’roll, nuclear power, moon-walks, global warming, and the Internet is a layer almost too thin to measure.

One thing is clear: wherever we are going, we are going there faster and faster.

But where are we going? What does the future hold in store?

The Quickening of Spirit

If the pace of development continues to increase - and we shall see shortly that there is every reason to believe it will - then the amount of change that we have seen in the last twenty years will be compressed into the next ten years, or less, and after that into an even shorter time. This itself is not a new revelation - even so, it is not always taken into full account in our extrapolations into the future. However, such ever-accelerating has another, much more startling consequence - and one that is not usually considered at all.

We might imagine that this speeding up could continue a long way into the future; in a hundred years it would be much faster than it is now, and in a thousand years much faster still. But this sort of acceleration cannot continue forever. The timescales involved are getting shorter and shorter; from billions of years, to millions, to thousands, to centuries, and now to mere decades. Before very much longer it comes to an end. If you plot out the curve of this sort of acceleration you find that the curve soon approaches the vertical. In other words, the rate of change tends towards the infinitely rapid. Mathematicians call such a point a “singularity”; the equations break down and cease to have any useful meaning.

Whether or not humanity actually reaches this point of unimaginably rapid progress I shall leave for the moment. What is clear is that a trend that has been going on for billions of years is going to come to an end - and probably fairly soon. The general concensus of opinion amongst researchers in this area is that this singularity in time lies in the first half the twenty-first century - assuming, that is, that we do not in the meantime turn the planet into a nuclear wasteland, accidentally create a plague that destroys us all, or decimate the ozone layer to such an extent that the land becomes uninhabitable.

Some, such as Vernor Vinge, a mathematician at San Diego State University, see the singularity to be consequence of technological acceleration, with ultra-intelligent computers creating an exponential runaway effect. But I believe technological progress to be but a phase in the overall pattern of development. Millions of years ago it was biological evolution that was accelerating. Ten thousand years ago the development of agriculture was speeding the rate of progress. A century ago it was industrial breakthroughs. Today it is information technology that is pushing the rate of development ever faster. Tomorrow we may be in a new phase of progress. The exploration and development of human consciousness could take over from information technology as an even faster arena of quickening. If so, it would be spiritual evolution, not technological evolution, that takes us into the singularity.

To see how this might come about, and where it might lead to, we must first go back and ask why is it that evolution tends to accelerate? And why, of all the creatures on this planet, human beings have created so much change so fast? We shall investigate why the exploration and development of the human mind is the next logical step in our evolutionary process, and why it is so critical for the world today. Our journey will lead us to consider what this inner development means on a personal level. How it can be encouraged and facilitated? And what the future might look like as we speed ever-faster towards this singularity in time?

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