A tractor tilling the land

Is this the end of the great acceleration?

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From the prevalence of digital data to national economies, everything is slowing down - and not just because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Danny Dorling’s new book ‘Slowdown’ has the maths and statistics to prove it.

“About six years ago I began measuring as many things about human progress as I could measure, expecting to find that half of them were accelerating while the other half were slowing down.” Danny Dorling is explaining why he chose to write his new book – ‘Slowdown’ – at a time when even the experts, including himself, were seeing a confused picture of progress in a digitally supercharged world.

As he measured, analysed and researched, Dorling discovered the “incredible shock” that far more aspects of our lives are decelerating “than most people would assume. ‘Slowdown’ is a look at the data.”

The publication of the book couldn’t be better timed. The Covid-19 pandemic has created conspicuous examples of contracting economies, declining stock-market indexes, decreased mobility, falling consumer spending, as well as significant misunderstanding around concepts such as ‘rate of change’ when it comes to infection, hospitalisation and mortality statistics.

Currently, one of the few economic phenomena under acceleration appears to be debt, something that Dorling tackles in chapter three: “It makes sense to begin with the exceptions when looking at the changing shape of our societies.” Two other grey areas he tackles are data (see extract) and environmental degradation.

It always used to be the case that the social phenomena we measured were accelerating, says Dorling, who is a professor of geography at the University of Oxford. Until the 1950s global population was “not just increasing but accelerating”. The same applies to GDP (gross domestic product), “that until about the 1960s wasn’t just increasing, but accelerating”. Likewise, stock markets were accelerating “until about 20 years ago”.

Which means that “because our grandparents lived through an age of enormous acceleration and our parents lived through a time when most things were accelerating, and because we live in a time when quite a lot has accelerated, we have a ‘folk myth’ that acceleration is the norm. And so it comes as a bit of a shock, when you come to measure things, to find that they are actually slowing down.”

The greatest technological change we have seen in recent history, says Dorling, isn’t the current explosion in data brought about by the Internet of Things, but the move from the horse to the tractor. “That is a more fundamental change than moving from one generation of mobile phone to another.” The mechanisation of farming, says Dorling, released vast quantities of people from the most common form of employment – working the land – to do other things. “This had an enormous influence on what we could do. It changed how far you could travel. It changed your beliefs.”

However, says Dorling, if you look at our lives today, despite the perception of there being relentless acceleration, “we don’t expect our children’s lives to be much different from our own. If anything, we forecast a future in which they are less frivolous with time and money. We don’t expect them to have many more goods than today. If you go back three generations, the changes were staggering – washing machines, double glazing – but recently the changes are much smaller.”

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Given that our grandparents lived through a time when everything was changing rapidly and our parents lived through a time of great progress, we are culturally attuned to the idea that everything is accelerating. Until recently, we assumed that global economies could only grow, the human population would expand unchecked and data would grow exponentially. But when we look at all these phenomena objectively, says Danny Dorling in his new book ‘Slowdown’, we can see that the areas of growth that once seemed unstoppable are, in fact, behaving differently. He compares this deceleration to everything being on an express train that is slowing down. While poised at the dawn of the golden age of digital technology, this might seem counterintuitive, but the statistics, phase graphs and the maths back up the case for the end of the ‘great acceleration’. Fascinating stuff.

One of the paradoxical results of the ‘great acceleration’ is that while we’re not tuned to expect lives like those of our parents, we are acculturated for rapid changes “such as were predicted in sci-fi films of the 1960s. And most of these things we don’t have.”

One of the reasons for our perception of progress being at odds with the evidence is that it is difficult for the non-specialist, non-statistician to visually interpret the data in a meaningful way. To assist with this, Dorling has liberally peppered his 400-page book with graphics in the format of ‘phase portraits’ (which are common enough in maths and physics) that specifically assist with the portrayal of rates of change.

Dorling says that currently there is a surge in interest in rate of change, as this is a key factor in understanding the data about the pandemic. “If you’re interested in the rate of change then phase portraits are the way to go about it. With these graphics we can identify a point at which things start to slow down.”

‘We have a ‘folk myth’ that acceleration is the norm.’

Danny Dorling

This is what seems to confuse the general public at the moment, says Dorling: how can the numbers be going up, while the overall trend is downwards? At this point he makes the aside that it might have helped the public enormously if broadcasters had brought in statistical expertise to explain the numbers, rather than allowing TV presenters with little grasp of the mathematical concepts involved to muddle through.

Where the overall picture of a general slowdown becomes problematic, admits Dorling, is how the various component strands of deceleration fit together. This is where “there is a hell of a lot of guesswork”. Could it be that the slowdown in GDP is related to the slowdown in population growth as markets (particularly those concentrated on younger people) contract? All these ideas feed into an over-arching conclusion that at some point “we have gone through a dramatic transformation and we are starting to see a slowdown”. Neither is global slowdown necessarily all bad news, says Dorling, who has subtitled his book “the end of the great acceleration – and why it is good for the planet, the economy and our lives”. We have reached the point where “we can envisage not consuming more and more, and a world in which we produce less waste”.

Dorling warns that “each variable has a different story”. With specific reference to the effect the Covid-19 pandemic may have on global deceleration, he references the flu pandemic of 1918 in which we now know that industrial carbon emissions were reduced by 40 per cent. “But the year after, emissions rose by about 50 per cent and after that things got back pretty much to what they were before the pandemic. But because we are already slowing down, a pandemic today can have a bigger effect. We’ve suddenly realised that we can meet electronically. We don’t have to go into the office, and we can really start to think about the things we are doing that we no longer need to do so much.”

‘Slowdown’ by Danny Dorling is published by Yale University Press, £18.99


Too much information?

There is no reason to think that data production will ‘only grow’, and there are many reasons to think that it will not. For a start, the growth in the global population of humans is itself slowing down. The number of human beings would have to rise and rise exponentially if we were to continue to create data at a rate such that 90 per cent of it is always so new that it is just a few years old. Or we would have to delete more and more of what we have only recently collected to ensure that the vast majority is always new. The proportion of people who have a mobile phone obviously cannot rise above 100 per cent, and there are also limits to the number of selfies and videos any one individual can create.

For some time to come companies may well collect and store information in such inefficient ways that, despite there being eight billion of us on the planet, we have already stored at least the equivalent of eight billion bytes of information per person on computers. Although most of this information may not be about people, it will include everything from remote-sensed imagery to scanned photographs of ancient art. It has all been collected by people and for people. Currently there is enormous duplication. Today, 1.7 megabytes of data is created every second for every person on Earth. In 2018, according to Forbes magazine, there were “2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace, but that pace is only accelerated by the growth of the Internet of Things”.

If we are to get to grips with whether the amount of information in the world really is growing exponentially, then we have to distinguish between useful, not very useful and completely useless data. Most data are virtually useless, and most of the rest are of little real use.

Edited extract, ‘Slowdown’ by Danny Dorling, reproduced with permission.

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