22 April 2016

The Great Acceleration – How the World is Getting Faster, Faster


I’ll start with a confession. When it comes to The Great Acceleration, I’ve been something of a decelerant. This book would likely have hit the shelves years earlier had its author not had the misfortune to find himself labouring under my whip at the Telegraph for a decent chunk of the past decade. In my defence, I worked him so hard only because he was so bloody good.

In the years we shared on the comment desk, the book’s unavoidably slow progress became something of a standing joke. Its intended title then was ‘Zoom’, which to the rest of us became ‘Zooooooooooom’, said out loud in a sarcastic sort of slowed-down voice. Rob Colvile bore this, and much else, with good grace and better humour.

And so, at long last, having escaped my rasping Scottish impositions and the book-unfriendly demands of daily newspaper life, Colvile has delivered. I am pleased, if still a little surprised, that I lived to see the day.

Thankfully, the thesis has lasted – indeed, as time has passed the book’s central insight has only been strengthened. As Colvile puts it in his introduction, ‘What single quality best defines how our society is changing? Is it that life is becoming fairer, or more equal, or more prosperous? No… it is that life is getting faster.’ The breakneck, merciless cycle of creation and destruction and creation that drives this technological age, and its impact on every corner of our existence, from our workplaces and family lives to politics and culture and even our physical and neural states, is a phenomenon that we are only beginning to understand. If we remain in the foothills of the digital revolution, so are we at base camp in our understanding of what it is doing to us, and what it will do.

If The Great Acceleration has a flaw it is that it occasionally reads like a grab bag of pre-published ideas, that it surfs on the cleverness of others: their research and studies and surveys. But it does what it does – synthesises – beautifully. It is a page-turner, beautifully constructed, packed full of compelling anecdotes, facts and arguments. Colvile does what all good journalists do: translates the complex, the abstruse and the arcane into fluent human.

It is one of those books that explains yourself to you – why your mind works the way it does; where creativity comes from; why certain situations are more conducive to invention and achievement than others. At the outset, Colvile explains that ‘this is not, primarily, a book about technology itself. Rather, it deals with human nature and its response to the technology around us,’ It is all the better for it. At its core is a cheering optimism about where we are heading, that ‘the benefits of the great acceleration are more substantial than its costs, but less dramatic. We are geared to pay more attention to the one day on which the stock market drops by 10 per cent than the long months in which it ticks slowly up. We worry about the impact of mobile phones on children’s brains, without appreciating the miraculous convenience of the connectivity they provide.’ While we are all aware that this revolution is changing us, by force of nature we place greater emphasis on the negatives. The author argues that ‘the great acceleration is an extraordinarily good thing for humanity… understanding how to blunt the worst consequences of change and embrace its best effects has never been more important. We cannot stop this acceleration: what we can do instead is ensure that its enormous potential is applied where it best serves our needs. We have it in our hands to build the greatest and most prosperous society in history, or to wreck ourselves through selfishness and greed. Which path we take will be determined by whether we become slaves of the great acceleration, or its masters.’

There is nothing new under the sun. Bigger, better, faster, more has long been humanity’s mission statement.  In 1845, it took President James Polk six months to get a message to California.  By the time Lincoln delivered his inaugural address in 1861, that had been cut to seven days and 17 hours. This was due to the advent of the Pony Express, which itself lasted just two years due to the arrival of the telegraph – ‘the Victorian internet’. But the actual internet – the Elizabethan internet? – has a particular catch: addiction. The Great Acceleration is particularly strong on how technology plugs into our pleasure circuit, how getting a ‘Like’ on Facebook or receiving an email or being retweeted delivers a tiny chemical high. ‘A green light goes on, a monkey gets a sugar drop; a phone goes ping, and you know you have a text message. Pretty soon, the activation of the brain’s pleasure circuit is associated not with the reward itself, but the signal: not reading the text message, but simply knowing you’ve received it.’

Colvile quotes appositely from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: ‘If you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the internet.’ A survey of people in 13 countries found that 75 per cent would give up alcohol, 27 per cent would forsake sex and 22 per cent would go without showers rather than give up internet access. The future is here, and it smells.

There are those, such as hardcore environmentalists, who argue that we should actively seek to return to slowness – that we lose too much of value in our constant rush. Colvile is having none of it: ‘Acceleration is so baked into the system that it will take an almighty alteration not just to our surroundings, but to our very biology, to deal it a serious blow. Even if the West were to retreat from haste and hustle, it is too late – the virus has escaped from its laboratory and infected the rest of the world with a desire to consume, innovate and disrupt.’

Where does it end? It doesn’t. What has happened to information technology and productivity is now happening to biology and materials science. We could soon break down the genetic code or even matter itself, which could then be rebuilt into new and exotic arrangements. ‘Superconductive graphene, transparent aluminium, synthetic elements, structures that can repair and replicate themselves, nano-materials – all promise to transform the world around us, as well as our impact upon it.’

The book’s central argument is that, whether we like it or not, we are locked into the digital revolution and its electric pace of change. Given we have no choice, we should appreciate the best of it, the countless improvements it makes to our lives, and tackle its problems and downsides in a clear-headed, rational fashion. Thinkers like Colvile help us do just that.

The Great Acceleration. Robert Colvile, Bloomsbury, RRP £16.99

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.