The future is accelerating. It is racing towards us faster than ever in our collective lives. How can that be known, you must ask, given that the future hasn't happened yet. It hasn't happened but a long-term pattern of accelerating life-cycles of societies is established.
''This is a deep trend of history,'' writes a futurologist, Michael Lee, in a new book, Knowing Our Future. ''It would be foolish to believe this [deep trend] can be easily reversed … Civilisations have life cycles, too, and their durations are shrinking over time.
''The lifespan of socio-political empires averaged 2000 years for a period of four millennia, but then more than halved with the next 1000 years of history. This sharp decrease in the lifespan of civilisations accelerated yet again in the following 500 years of history, dropping to a little over one-tenth of their average duration in ancient times.''
Lee's study of this deep trend was in part based on the work of Robert Samet, a civil engineer and futurologist who traced the duration of societies over history. In Long-Range Futures Research (2008), he described a striking shrinkage in the longevity of empires and cultures: ''The earliest civilisations between 3500 BC and AD 500 last for an average of 2000 years … In the period from AD 500-1500, the average duration was 500 to 1000 years … since AD 1500 … the average duration has been 200 to 500 years.''
Signs of an accelerating pattern of vulnerability and decline in our own western model of society are offered by the world's most famous economic historian, Professor Niall Ferguson. This year he used the Reith Lectures to chart the elements of decay in the Western civilisation. He gave his lecture series the gloomy and arresting title, The Great Degeneration, just released as a book.
He argues that advanced Western societies are developing sclerosis, manifest in the envelopment of life in bureaucratic and legal red tape. The most advanced economies are also becoming increasingly mendicant societies, evidenced by the unsustainable growth of social welfare spending in the European Union, the United States and, in a longer-term trend, Australia.
Among the telling low-lights offered by The Great Degeneration:
- The advanced nations which have created public and private debt larger than their gross domestic products confront a narrow range of options. They must raise the rate of growth above the rate of interest. If they cannot, they must default on a large proportion of public debt. Or wipe out debts via currency depreciation and inflation.
- The real rate of structural unemployment is concealed by the mendicant state. In the three years from June 2009 to June 2012, the world's largest economy, the US, created 2.4 million jobs but 3.3 million Americans were awarded disabled worker benefits. ''Unemployment is being concealed - and rendered permanent - in ways all too familiar to Europeans.''
- The financial crisis in 2007 had its origins in over-complex regulations not just misguided deregulation.
- ''All political systems are likely to succumb to sclerosis, mainly because of rent-seeking activities by organised interest groups.''
- The rule of law is increasingly being superseded and displaced by the rule of lawyers.
If this lecture series could be summed up in a single sentence it is this: when a majority of people vote for a living rather than work for a living, democracy, freedom and living standards are all in a lock-step of decline.
Ferguson is also a noted critic of casino capitalism but even his concerns about the emerging dominance of the vast financial derivatives market pale when compared with the details provided in another book published this year, Dark Pools, by a Wall Street Journal reporter, Scott Patterson.
The accelerating cycles of capitalism's creative disruption have reached a new velocity with the basic form known as stock trading. Sixty years ago, the average stock trade involved buying and holding a stock for four years. By 2000, that average holding period had shrunk to eight months. By 2008, it was two months. By 2011, it was 22 seconds. It would be even less now.
Patterson describes the global financial market as ''a worldwide matrix of dazzlingly complex algorithms, interlinked computer hubs the size of football fields, and high-octane trading robots guided by the latest advances in artificial intelligence''.
''With electronic trading, a placeless, faceless, post-modern cyber-market in which computers communicated at warp speed, that physical sense of the market's flow had vanished … Regular investors, of course, had little idea about the massive transfer of wealth that was taking place.''
The transfer of wealth upwards over the past quarter-century is well documented as a byproduct of global capitalism.
Then there is climate change, an encompassing process of accelerating change and disruption. The ideology of manic economic growth, driven by the false wisdom that technology can conquer problems caused by technology, is clearly having a global impact on the environment caused by the reality that 7 billion people now live on the planet and the average person is consuming far more than ever before in history. That this must significantly affect not just the environment but the global climate invokes the most basic and self-evident commonsense.
The world's scientific community has presented a compelling case that the acceleration of global consumption is in turn accelerating the much deeper natural pattern of climate change.
If you feel like life around you is speeding up, especially the cycle of invention to obsolescence, it's not you, it's everyone and everything.