Thursday, January 31, 2013

More Change, Less Discussion

We are adapting to a more rapid pace of change, and one way we are adapting is by not discussing every change that we observe. Things happen, we all see them and know they happened, but we don’t stop to talk about it.

I saw an example of this recently when I went with a friend to a familiar store. The store had closed, and another store had opened in its place. We went in to look briefly at the new store, but there was no discussion of the old store, the one we had thought we were arriving at. Obviously, its revenue was not enough, and it was gone for good. What was there to talk about?

It was not so different when Circuit City and Borders closed. People talked some about the liquidation sales and checked with each other about the closing dates of specific stores but there wasn’t much talk about not being able to go to those stores anymore. When I speculated about the broader implications of the store closings, it was with other economists.

We go through whole generations of technology with a similar dearth of narrative. Most of my friends who drink beer have, in the last decade, switched to locally brewed beer, seen their favorite microbrewery shut down, and found themselves drinking less often because it’s not always easy to find the time for beer. In this context, the question, “What are you drinking these days?” neatly covers most of the ins and outs of a fairly elaborate sequence of events that a whole group of people have been through more or less simultaneously, even if they did not necessarily experience it together.

We are getting better at telling very short stories. Personal changes that would have been a novel a generation ago can now be condensed to a tweet if need be. “I got a Ph.D. in materials engineering and took a job in Toledo, but the new product flopped and the company might be taken over.” This narrative style leaves out volumes of action but still gets you to the essence of the present situation.

Returning more quickly to the present perhaps makes change less stressful. When you focus on the way things used to be, what might have been, or all the things that could happen next, that’s unavoidably complicated. The present situation, though, is only as complicated as you are ready to make it.

This post appeared originally in Rick Aster’s World.