The Surprising Truth: Technology Is Aging in Reverse
- 9:30 AM
We’re living in a Black Swan world, but what does this mean for the future of technology? My new book Antifragile argues that technologies, ideas, and theories – anything informational or cultural, as opposed to physical – age in reverse.
We may be trained to think that the new is about to overcome the old, but that’s just an optical illusion. Because the failure rate of the new is much, much higher than the failure rate of the old. When you see a young child and an old adult, you can be confident that the younger will likely survive the elder.
Yet with something nonperishable like a technology, that’s not the case.
There are two possibilities: Either both are expected to have the same additional life expectancy, or the old is expected to have a longer expectancy than the young. In this situation, if the old is 80 and the young is 10, the elder is expected to live eight times as long as the younger one.
Building on this so-called Lindy effect (in the version later developed by the great Benoît Mandelbrot), I propose the following:
For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable like technology, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy.
So the longer a technology lives, the longer it can be expected to live.
For example: Let’s assume the sole information I have about a gentleman is that he is 40 years old, and I want to predict how long he will live. I can look at actuarial tables and find his age-adjusted life expectancy as used by insurance companies. The table will predict he has an extra 44 years to go; next year, when he turns 41, he will have a little more than 43 years to go.
For a perishable human, every year that elapses reduces his life expectancy by a little less than a year.
The opposite applies to non-perishables like technology and information. If a book has been in print for 40 years, I can expect it to be in print for at least another 40 years. But – and this is the main difference – if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another 50 years.
As a rule, this simply tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.
This is an indicator of some robustness: The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!
And the Lindy effect doesn’t change with the way you define technology – it can be as narrow or as general as you like. A car can be defined as something broad such as a “box on wheels” (including both carriages and modern cars), or, it can be defined as something specific such as “the red convertible.” Each would have a life expectancy that is proportional to its age, as defined. A reading document can be a Mesopotamian tablet, a scroll, or a book – and the book can be physical or electronic.
But what about a technology that we currently see as inefficient and dying, like print newspapers, land lines, or physical storage for tax receipts? People often counter my argument by presenting such examples.
To which I respond: The Lindy effect is not about every technology, but about life expectancy — which is simply a probabilistically derived average.
If I know that a 40-year-old has terminal pancreatic cancer, I will no longer estimate his life expectancy using unconditional insurance tables; it would be a mistake to think he has 44 more years to live like the others in his age group who are cancer-free. Someone at a conference similarly interpreted my argument as suggesting that the World Wide Web, currently less than about 20 years old, will only have another 20 to go – this is a noisy estimator that should work on average, not in every case.
In general, the older the technology, not only is it expected to last longer – but the more certainty I can attach to such a statement. Here’s the key principle: I am not saying that all technologies don’t age, only that those technologies that were prone to aging are already dead.
It is precisely because the world is getting more technological, that the old has a huge advantage over the new.
Now let’s take the idea beyond technology for a moment. If there’s something in the culture – say, a practice or a religion that you don’t understand – yet has been done for a long time – don’t call it “irrational.” And: Don’t expect the practice to discontinue.
Some things are opaque to us humans. Those things can only be revealed by time, which understands things we humans are unable to explain. But this method allows us to figure out how time and things work without quite getting inside the complexity of time’s mind. Time is scientifically equivalent to disorder, and things that gain from disorder are what this author calls “antifragile.”