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Cultural Latency & The Dawning of the Information Age

Latency kills

[Stolen from here]

There is a correlation between the amount of time it takes to distribute something, and the amount of time it takes for that thing to have an effect, and consequently the amount of time that thing stays relevant and interesting.

When music was distributed as sheet music - a [literally] laborious distribution mechanism - popular hits stayed at the top of the charts for years.

When gramophone reproductions were introduced and became a more popular mechanism for distributing music, the half-life of a hit decreased dramatically.

[You don't need to learn to piano to use a disc, so this removes a distribution bottleneck - piano + pianist. In fact, there was an intermediate stage, the mechanical player piano, which operated on rolls of printed music.]

It decreased again each time formats became easier to distribute, for either technological or structural reasons.

Digital distribution removes many of the friction points within the distribution system - making it more efficient, economically speaking.

But this also seems to lead to far more rapid cultural decay rates - sales charts now are driven almost exclusively by novelty - top selling DVDs are just what came out that week.

In gaming, and network based computing in general, the term that describes the lag between a cause and effect, between the moment when something is initiated and the moment one of the effects can be perceived is called latency.

The lower the latency, the faster the distant computer responds, the faster you see an effect and can respond and so on. This is a good thing - it means you don't get killed in the game because your character didn't move when you told him to.

As communication technologies get faster and more pervasive, the latency of culture is decreasing.

The speed at which people could move used to be the speed at which information traveled - hence the guy who ran the marathon.

Then people on horseback became the speed at which information traveled: the speed at which messages could traverse distances put a limit on the latency of culture, which in turn tended to mean things changed more slowly.

Email enabled messages to travel at the speed of light. This led to things moving faster, things changing faster.

But email is essentially one to one - even if you send it to many people, no one oversees the message, which puts a limit on the reduction in cultural latency - and it it used to be limited to the desktop.

Now we have millions of eyes all connected to a real time micro broadcast messaging platform via a mobile device they have with them at all times, and a social eagerness to demonstrate primacy. 

Cultural latency is dropping to [almost] zero, at least in the more connected parts of the world.

Which I suspect is going to have some interesting effects, because it creates much faster feedback loops - information, once delivered, is both a reported effect and a subsequent cause, which triggers more effects, and so on.

Things like informational cascades driving herd behavior, previously very visible in stock markets [which constantly monitors and reports on itself], and cumulative advantages, which function when behavior is visible to the decision making crowd, will inevitably become more prevalent.

Things like Swine Flu can go from something no one has heard of, to something people are searching for, to a topic of twysteria - hitting 10,000 tweets an hour.

In essence the infosphere is beginning to operate far more chaotically: a dynamic, closed, evolving system, characterized by aperiodic feedback loops, that can drive massive perturbations in the system from relatively small changes in the initial conditions.

[This is popularly known as the 'Butterfly Effect'.]

Diminished cultural latency means that the propagation of information is so fast that the spread itself becomes the defining aspect of the system: the rate-of-spread becomes as important as the information itself.

The information age is only just beginning.

[Thanks to both my brothers.]

[UPDATE: Mike Skinner/The Streets have a Swine Flu track]