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Published on Sunday, August 1, 2021

The constant of accelerating change

Sunday August 1, 2021


Along with a majority of Canadians, I’ve had my second COVID-19 vaccination. I’d like to go back to hugging my friends and shaking hands with those who might become close friends. 

            It ain’t gonna happen. 

            The hugging and handshaking might, but life is not going to go back to what it was. Evolution – which is just another word for “change” – doesn’t work that way. 

            The dinosaurs probably thought evolution had gone into reverse – assuming they were capable of thinking of such matters – when the asteroid hit the Yucatan peninsula and they all died of hypothermia. They had, after all, been the dominant product of evolution for 170 million years. 

            But in fact, evolution speeded up. The great annihilation was the great acceleration. It opened up new frontiers for mammals (which includes us) and birds. 

            How long have we humans dominated life on this planet? I’d guess that until about 10,000 years ago we had no discernable effect at all. A tiny fraction of the time when dinosaurs were dominant.

            Only since we enslaved technology have we turned into the most invasive species this planet has ever known, surpassing even insects.



Exponential effects

            I can’t chart the rate of change over four billion years. Perhaps a paleontologist could. But I’m sure that the rate of change from the beginning of life to the present has been exponential, not linear. 

            “Linear” assumes a more or less straight line of growth; each change just adds to what has gone before.. “Exponential” multiplies instead of adding. 

            That is, if there was two changes over the first million years of life on the planet, the next million years would see four. Then eight, then 16, and so on. 

            A Chinese folktale tells of a man who did a favour for the emperor. As payment, the man asked for one grain of rice for the first square on a chessboard, two for the next, etc. The emperor thought he was getting off easy. But by the time they got to the 64th square, the emperor owed more than the entire rice supply of the nation. 

            That’s how exponential change works. 

            In a famous essay in 2001, Ray Kurzweil documented that rate of change for scientific development. Gordon Moore predicted it in 1965 in what has since been called “Moore’s Law.”. Both have held true for computers. It’s harder to document for other aspects of human life. 

            Consider our own lifetimes. My parents were born into a world with no cars, no planes, no telephones (and especially no smartphones), no electricity… No nuclear weapons, no space travel, no GPS. No Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, or Tik-Tok. 

            That didn’t happen all at once. But as it happened, it happened faster and faster.


What’s next?

            After a mere 16 months of learning to live with COVID-19 restrictions, I look forward to sharing a meal indoors with people who are not my immediate family. To sing in a choir. To gather in crowds for special events. 

            And to worship as the collective “body of Christ” that we claim to be.

            That may indeed happen. But count on it – something else is lurking just over the horizon, waiting to rush upon us and change our lives again. 

            Poet W.B. Yeats closed one of his doomsday poems with the lines, “And what great beast, its hour come ‘round at last/ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

            I can’t predict the nature of that “great beast.” Despite Yeats’ pessimism, it doesn’t need to be a bad thing. It might, at first, seem like a huge step forward. 

            Perhaps a cure for aging DNA (although probably not soon enough for me). Perhaps a next generation iPhone that can transmit thoughts, making telepathy possible. 

            Whatever it is, it will have ramifications that will continue to change our lives in ways we cannot yet imagine. And probably won’t imagine, until we begin to recognize the flip side of the benefits.

            There will be a flip side. Just as there has been a flip side to fossil fuels. And to longer life expectancies. 

            And, yes, to our procedures for protecting ourselves against the spread of a new disease.

            With social distancing, masking, vaccinations, and quarantining, we broke the COVID transmission cycle. For a while. In the process, though, we increased alcoholism. Domestic abuse. Loneliness. Suicide. 

            COVID-19 has changed us. We won’t, and can’t, go back to pre-COVID times. We don’t know what’s coming next. But it too will change us, and we won’t be able to go back to the way things were -- any more than the dinosaurs could.


Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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Your turn


There are no letters this week, because I’m posting this column to my webpage before it gets sent out to the list of subscribers. Maybe I’ll add the letters later. 






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think some of these links are spam.)

            Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

            I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/

            Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



            The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns




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