Speed and the slowdown of History

Technology increases the pace of change. This assertion is said so often that I have yet to find someone challenge it seriously. However, I argue that increases in speed, whether transport or communication, actually decreases the pace of political change. Take these three six-year sequences as examples.

Three examples of faster change

The three examples above, for all their flaws, show that the current European crisis unfolds at a dramatically slow pace. Despite the major changes (the banking union, the change in the ECB’s behavior in 2012 etc.), life for European citizens has not changed dramatically since 2009. Being unemployed is not the same as having a family member killed in the army or undergoing the change from communism to breakneck free-market economics.

The same can be said of the Iran nuclear talks, which started in 2003, or the lack of decisive change in Iraq since 2005. It seems that, apart from non-state actors, few politicians are willing to risk their position in a gamble that could bring about major political changes.

Proponents of the “increased speed of history” point at the fast pace of adoption of technologies such as Facebook or Whatsapp [1], or to the fact that it took a few years for gay marriage to become legal in the United States [2]. These were fast changes. But the internet, let alone Whatsapp pale in comparison with the speed with which the radio or the automobile transformed the way of life of American and European societies. Even ideas, and the concrete change they brought with them, used to travel at fast speed. Between 1789 and 1793, the status of Catholicism in France went from state religion to a valid ground to be executed. The switch to atheism was both faster and more dramatic than the acceptance of gay marriage.

Changes in legislation do not equate changes in beliefs. Beliefs change at the pace of generations, as one person finds it very hard to change what he or she was taught. Hence, rapid change in legislation must be followed by rapid changes in beliefs. The underlying requirement is for legal change to hold longer than it takes for a person to be educated. This is why the impact of the anti-Catholic movement of the 1790’s in France was probably less strong than National-Socialism’s in the 1930’s in Germany [3].

That change does not happen faster now than a few centuries ago is obvious. However, I see a few reasons why faster technology can actually decrease the pace of change.

Air travel and communications

That leaders can talk and move around fast has been true since the advent of the telephone and planes in the middle of the twentieth century. That their staff can do the same, at a very low cost, using Skype or Easyjet, is new. More frequent interactions might decrease the incentive to plot for dramatic change. If you know your counterparts well, were it only because you chat with them between work sessions, and if you know that they are coming next week for a workshop, why would you antagonize them? The role of meetings in conflict prevention is perhaps best illustrated by the diplomatic efforts of Krzysztof Skubiszewski in the period 1988/1993. As the foreign minister of Poland, he worked – and traveled – tirelessly to convince Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Germans and Russians not to start a fight when all the ingredients of an ethnic war were in place [4]. If you think this example contradicts the Polish timeline above, try to imagine what the region would be like today if it had gone through a Yugoslav scenario.

More recently and at a larger scale, the increase in the number of European Summits supports the idea that more in-person meetings helps cool down hot tempers. The fast political maturation of Alexis Tsipras in early 2015 is testament to this.

Social networks

A probably more important factor in the rarefaction of fast changes lies in the ease with which people opposed to change can organize. The “not in my backyard” (nimby) protests, where a group of people opposed to a new power plant, a new road or any new construction petition for the status quo, make use of social networks, emails and cheap printing to increase their organizational capacities. Whether or not this is a good thing is not the point. More nimby movements mean less major works and longer time frames for the ones that do get built.

What is true of local protest against concrete plans is also true of global protests against intangible concepts. Opposition to age-old symbolic issues, such as the term “Armenian Genocide”, continues unabated thanks to cheap means of organization.

Rapid intervention forces

Satellite imagery, drones and power projection help in derailing a political change under way and imposing the status quo. The French interventions in Chad in 2008, in Mali in 2012 and the Central African Republic in 2013, for instance, successfully prevented rebel forces from seizing power thanks to rapid intervention.

Such operations are not new. The French and British armies intervened at Suez in 1956 four months after the canal was nationalized (they ultimately failed at preserving the status quo but succeeded militarily). However, advances in detection technologies undeniably give an advantage to the intervening force.

Surveillance

Current development in mass surveillance will probably allow for the early identification of organizations advocating social or political change, making it all the harder for them to succeed. Proponents of mass surveillance routinely explain that their aim is to identify challenges to the status quo before they materialize. Even if such claims are dubious, they are likely to discourage people who could have been ready to advocate and engage in political change.


The pace of political and social change is not accelerating as a result of faster means of transport and communication. These precise means might even help in maintaining the status quo, either by helping antagonists socialize (air travel) or by giving smaller groups a power of nuisance they did not have before (social networks). More obviously, greater speed in military and surveillance give an advantage to those in power, who naturally have an interest in the absence of change.

The most likely causes of the absence of change in Europe are the aging of the population (younger people have less to lose in political change) and the rising wealth inequalities (wealthier people have more means to enforce the status quo). But the speed of communications, in itself, could be a third factor in the sluggish pace of political change.

Notes

1. The idea that the internet was especially fast at reaching 50 million users is wrong. Radio and TV spread faster. Read this essay by Gisle Hannemyr for more.

2. This Bloomberg timeline of social change in the United States shows that the legalization of abortion happened as fast as gay marriage (7 years). In Europe, the first law allowing gay marriage – in the Netherlands – was passed in 2001, 14 years ago.

3. As late as 1952, a survey among West-Germans (who, 7 years into Allied occupation, knew what was expected of them) showed that about a quarter of them had a positive view of Hitler. In 1951, as the economic miracle was already under way, 2 in 5 thought Nazi Germany was better than the Federal Republic. I could not find the original surveys. The information comes from Postwar (p. 829) and this Wikipedia citation.

4. I read about Skubiszewski’s work in Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations, which I highly recommend.


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