The second post in my series on long wave theories
The idea of long waves is associated with the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev, who was eventually shot by Stalin for his troubles. But the first versions of the theory came from two Dutch scholars a decade earlier, van Gelderen and de Wolff. Kondratiev studied price data (and therefore effectively was looking at long swings in economic investment activity), but other long wave theorists have developed their theories based on different drivers of change, from innovation, to capitalist restructuring, to long-run capital investment, to war.
My plan in these posts was to review the different theories by re-reading the various theorists, but the American academic Joshua Goldstein has done a lot of this work in some detail in his 1988 book Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age, and has also posted the whole of the book online. I’d say his book is essential reading if you’re interested in the idea of long wave theory.
This post will draw on some of my wider reading, but will mostly synthesise the painstaking work that Goldstein has done.
It’s fairly clear, if you spend any time doing futures work, that there are some recurring patterns that seem to evolve over one or two generations, or more. As part of a personal research project, I have started re-reading these “long wave” theories to try to understand their similarities and differences, and I’ll be blogging about my reading as I go.
An obvious starting point in this journey is Jim Dator’s long survey of the area, “From Tsunamis to Long Waves and Back”, drawn from the archive of the journal Futures, and published over two articles in Futures in 1999. The essay – recombined – can be found here.
Here I’m just going to pull out some extracts that seem to shape the landscape.
One of the most tiresome tropes on the futures circuit is the idea that the world is speeding up, often accompanied by a dodgy video with dodgier data. It’s one of those things that almost every generation in history has believed, along with the notions that young people are less respectful than they used to be and that society is going to the dogs. It also helps to sell books and consultancy projects. And broadly speaking, it is just plain wrong. To borrow Sohail Inayatullah’s terminology, it is a “used future”, borrowed from someone else.
Watching the SOPA/PIPA saga unfold from the other side of the Atlantic, it was difficult not to see it as a ‘wave war’, in which companies which grew up in different technology waves compete to set the frame of economic and policy discussion. On the one side, the media companies, creatures of the mass production era that dominated much of the 20th century; on the other, the technology companies that have grown up in the digital wave that followed it. (I wrote about these waves in the Futures Company Futures Perspective report, Technology 2020).
The technology companies seem to be on the right side of the generational wave.
I read an interview the other day with a futurist who said that a traveller from 1910 would find the present world ‘unfathomable’. It was one of those ahistorical things which futurists say to get attention, sometimes adding that everything is speeding up, but it’s not borne out by the briefest review. Quite a lot of the world of 2010 would be familiar to a traveller from a hundred years ago.
The United States is the location for a huge experiment about the failure of political systems.
There’s nothing to add on the US healthcare bill from this side of the Atlantic, except for the bemusement that proposals which would be regarded as mild by any Christian Democratic (right of centre) government should provoke such a grim catfight. But from a futures perspective the US offers an interesting living laboratory experiment, of what happens when politics breaks down. It’s difficult to tell whether what we’re seeing is just one of those 50-year realignments you see in electoral democracies, or whether it’s the end of the road for the whole idea of the separation of powers. But it could be that serious.
Now that the froth from the iPad launch has blown past, it’s worth stepping back a bit. For me, the most telling comments were not the ones which talked about functionality, but those which looked at what the iPad proposition told us about the state of the device and app market. Which is this: the computer technology market is now moving out of its technology-led phase.
A moment of theory might help. I’m quite influenced by the work of the economic historian Carlota Perez, who’s tracked five long phases, or surges, of technology innovation, going back to 1771. Each phase runs for 50-60 years and follows a common pattern (there’s more detail in the diagram below). There’s an ‘installation’ phase, in which the new technology platform spreads in visibility and usage (device penetration increases, underlying infrastructure is developed). There’s a bubble and a crash, in which investors get over-excited about the prospects. And then there’s a deployment phase, in which the applications associated with the technology platform deepen and broaden, and the underlying impacts on society become more profound. The ICT surge started in 1971, with the invention of the microprocessor. We’ve finished the installation phase, we’ve had the crash (dot.com, not global financial crash, though the two may be linked), and now we’re several years into the deployment phase. The iPad launch was another confirming sign of this.
I’ve written here before about longer-term futures and how we think about them. Over the past year or so I have beem fortunate to work on a series of scenarios projects, for different clients, but on the theme of sustainability, looking out between 30 and 90 years. There are some patterns – and looking across them they throw up a set of questions about the future. I’ve written a short article (dowloadable from the Selected Articles page) and I’ve summarised the main points below the fold.