History Is Speeding Up and We Can’t Stop It

The exponential rate of social change and the inevitability of a social reset

Jared Barlament

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You know, while getting inundated with scores of “little miss” memes on Instagram, I realized something; it’s been several months since I’ve seen a truly viral meme trend. Really. I remember even a couple of years ago, everyone (at least in my age group) seemed to know every viral meme as it came and went. Internet culture was vastly — though probably unquantifiably — more unified.

I even remember people commenting how the average viral meme’s life cycle was slowly getting shorter. In the 2000s, a meme could keep being funny for years. By 2020 or so, they’d rarely last two months. By now, they’ve almost disappeared entirely — why yes, I have finally gotten to the point — because no two people experience even roughly the same Internet nowadays. Everything is personalized, so everything is balkanized; data available and connection speeds and screen time increased so much that the speed at which shared online social events (memes, trends, viral videos) became new and became old increased until it broke.

Trends are born and die so fast that most don’t even notice them, and they gain traction and lose appeal in niche communities before they can ever be carried by those communities into the mainstream, meaning instead of subcultures contributing to the wider culture, they just live in their own enclosed worlds and let the wider culture disintegrate. And though this phenomenon can be explained away by the whims of social media algorithms, it still strikingly mirrors what’s happening in the wider world; that is, history is speeding up and hurtling toward the day it entirely breaks.

As we know, the rate of technological change has dramatically accelerated over the past few centuries. Though the extent to which technology drives history is debatable, it can definitely be said to drive it to some extent, and by that amount, it follows that history has accelerated as well. The exponential growth in human population may have something to do with it — there are exponentially more people out there doing more things — but the main culprit or the laundry list of culprits isn’t the concern here. The concern is not the cause but the effect; that it seems the rate of social change that occurs over a given amount of time has increased exponentially; maybe not uninterrupted, and certainly not uniformly, but steadily nonetheless. There…

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Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.