In the physical world, lifespans are finite. The longer something has been alive, the closer it is to death, whether you’re talking about your aunt or your dog or even your refrigerator or external hard drive. But when it comes to the realm of the nonphysical—things like ideas and technologies and other cultural products—is it possible that the opposite is true? That the longer something has been around, the longer we can expect it to be around in the future?
That’s the theory put forward by author and big thinker Nassim Taleb in his new book, Antifragile. Taleb, who looked at unforeseen, unforeseeable events in his last book, The Black Swan, recently summarized his new work over at Wired.
We may be trained to think that the new is about to overcome the old, but that’s just an optical illusion. Because the failure rate of the new is much, much higher than the failure rate of the old. When you see a young child and an old adult, you can be confident that the younger will likely survive the elder.
Yet with something nonperishable like a technology, that’s not the case.
Or, as Taleb summarizes it: "For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable like technology, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy."
The author adapted the idea from something called the Lindy effect, which derives from work by the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot. And Taleb says it applies at any level of specificity:
…the Lindy effect doesn’t change with the way you define technology—it can be as narrow or as general as you like. A car can be defined as something broad such as a “box on wheels” (including both carriages and modern cars), or, it can be defined as something specific such as “the red convertible.” Each would have a life expectancy that is proportional to its age, as defined. A reading document can be a Mesopotamian tablet, a scroll, or a book—and the book can be physical or electronic.
Of course, looking at our current historical moment, you could point to plenty of things that contradict the theory. Why is the web thriving, for example, while daily newspapers are dying out? Taleb counters that the theory is concerned with greater trends and averages, not specific technologies at specific times.
And with that broad view in mind, it’s certainly an interesting formulation to unpack. Paper books endure, but not quite as reliably as the stone tablets that preceded them. Major religions hold sway, while cults come and go like fads. It’s something to consider, too, in terms of the way we live today. Digital files, we know, can remain pristine through the years, but the reality is far messier. Hard drives fail; file formats become outmoded. It’s a good thing, then, that when we decided to send the sights and sounds of Earth out into the cosmos aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, we did so on a tried-and-true phonograph record, instead of going with the hottest technology of the day. I don’t think aliens use eight-track anymore, either.