The Lindy Effect

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

“Old is gold but gold never gets old.” – Ayush Singh

The longer something has been around, the better it will last. My nanna’s antique sideboard has been in the family a fair while - and it's as solid and serviceable as ever. So is that purple velvet opera coat Mum’s grandmother passed down to me.

[caption id="attachment_2017" align="alignright" width="169"] Plato[/caption]

Ubiquitous elements to life in general - such as the shape of a chair or a bed – have remained relatively unchanged for millennia. Some technology (such as the cell phone) has been around for 75 years! The reuse-recycle movement began in the ‘70s and is getting stronger each day, and how come we are still talking about Plato 2000 years after his death?

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

“Old is gold but gold never gets old.” – Ayush Singh

The longer something has been around, the better it will last. My nanna’s antique sideboard has been in the family a fair while – and it’s as solid and serviceable as ever. So is that purple velvet opera coat Mum’s grandmother passed down to me.

Plato

Ubiquitous elements to life in general – such as the shape of a chair or a bed – have remained relatively unchanged for millennia. Some technology (such as the cell phone) has been around for 75 years! The reuse-recycle movement began in the ‘70s and is getting stronger each day, and how come we are still talking about Plato 2000 years after his death?

Why does even the verbalising of these things sound slow, steady, resilient, and enduring?

Let’s look at an old-fashioned concept – if you can regard the ‘60s as old fashioned – that’s seeping into contemporary times: it’s called the Lindy Effect.

The idea was first mooted in Manhattan, New York, by a bunch of whiskey-swilling, cigar-competing experts at a deli called Lindy’s. They’d check out the currently-playing comedy shows – or perform at them – then sit around to chew the fat. Groucho Marx, Dick Cavett, and Woody Allen were amongst the esteemed patrons, and indeed, the deli had been a favourite hangout for all manner of famous and infamous custom since the 1920s.

During their nightly post-show assassinations or approbations, the comedians would espouse theories about the skits they had just enjoyed. They had great fun discussing why some comics were fly by night performers – here one minute, gone the next – yet others seemed to be there for the duration.

Likewise, actors who hung out at the deli mused over the fact that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, the life expectancy was two hundred more. (Think Phantom of the Opera: lifespan to date: 33 years and still going strong.)

One of the gentlemen often in attendance was historian Albert Gouldman. In his opinion, performances eked out sporadically rather than regularly would avoid comedian and public opinion burnout – thereby prolonging the actor’s popularity. There was much cigar-puffing debate about his ideas, and Gouldman was encouraged to write about them in left-wing political, cultural, and social commentary magazine the New Republic in 1964. He put a name to his theorising and became known as the inventor of Lindy’s Law.

The theory didn’t gel with mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, however. He reckoned the exact opposite to Gouldman, so, in 1982 set about to prove that the longevity of a comedian would actually increase according to how many shows he had done in the past: the more exposure, the more content and material to draw upon, the more longevity. And the longer the comedian had been around, the more future-forward his existence would be.

Mandelbrot’s heuristic (which is an adjective to describe a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently) was known as the Lindy effect. The word heuristic itself comes from the Greek ‘to discover’, but I also see the French word for ‘time’ (‘heure’) in its use. And in the Lindy effect, we use time as a natural filter for its meaning.

“The Lindy effect is the razor of time – a law which describes the longevity of concepts. For some ideas and technologies, their mortality decreases over time.” – The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot, 1982.

Mandelbrot explains that time and degeneration go into reverse when classifying objects and practices of a certain age. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. That means something that’s 40 years in age will likely reach another 40, if not more.

It’s literally the pill of longevity which, unfortunately (or fortunately!) doesn’t apply to human beings – we are far too frail and perishable. That human fragility equates oppositely to the Lindy effect of ‘antifragility’. For people, every year of life decreases their remaining life expectancy. Conversely, the technology behind non-perishable items, entities, and ideas allows each subsequent year of existence to increase their life expectancy.

So with something non-perishable it’s very likely that the old is expected to have a longer expectancy than the young. If a business is eighty years old, and another one is ten years old, the older business is expected to live eight times as long as the new one. Those non-perishable things are antifragile, resilient; they move with time, withstand the test of time, and survive; they represent the Lindy effect to a tee.

The value of understanding antifragility was described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012). Taleb defines antifragility as: “beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.

It reminds me of the variations of a famed truism by 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Out of life’s school of war – what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger,” meaning that suffering can be an opportunity to build strength and resilience. A consistently smooth run in life – something we’d all like – can create the opposite effect in a time of crisis. We become victims rather than innovators, adapters, and fighters.

I love the current trend of employers to seek people with those latter characteristics to have on their team. Not so important are the double-major university degrees or scholarships. In hot demand are agile applicants who can adapt to rapidly changing technology, who are responsive to volatile marketplaces and who can use their soft skills (emotions) to build positive relationships. Emotions and feelings are not only integral to our moral, social, and personal well-being; they are also vital tools for solving the complex challenges we face individually, organisationally, and even as a species.

The Lindy effect allows detachment from the influences of superficial fashion and social trends in ideas, too – because most new things are fragile and will not last. The opposite to antifragility is neomania: an obsession with the new – it’s a trait of the modern world! The latest iPhone upgrade, ear pods, Apple mac, or Glasson’s outfit (that you only wear once) – you could call a person who loves this way of life a flibbertigibbet neomaniac, yet many of us are there on some level.

Sure, technology will continue to improve and increase its impact on our daily lives; but we don’t have to yearn for the latest and greatest all the time. Instead, we can choose to make decisions based on ideas that have been around the longest – Lindy ideas. Have a think about Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato – their theories are just as applicable today as they were 2000 years ago.

“Lindy answers the age-old meta-questions: Who will judge the expert? Who will guard the guard? (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) Who will judge the judges? Well, survival will.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin In The Game

The older something is,

→ the more conditions it must have been fit for,

→ the broader range of possible futures it is fit for,

→ and thus, the lower its hazard rate (namely: its potential for destruction).

You can relate the Lindy effect to everything that evolves in some way: culture, ideas, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, even good recipes (say, chicken soup, cheese fondue, or beef casserole) – but not, of course, the perishable ingredients! And keeping the Lindy effect at the back of your mind can help you estimate not only the life expectancy of these things but also their usefulness, relevance, maintainability, and reliability.

Weirdly enough, the Lindy effect is a tenet that in itself epitomises the Lindy effect:

“Tonight, I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least twenty-five centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn fifty-three hundred years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology … I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile, 2012.

Alexander Rose and a team of engineers from The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco are constructing a clock to be housed underground in the Texan desert. The clock will be powered by mechanical energy harvested from sunlight and is designed to tick for 10,000 years. The Long Now Foundation began the project over 20 years ago, and it is one of several projects aimed at fostering long-term thinking.

Since the clock project is meant to change the way people think about time, Alexander Rose says:

“The idea is to create a provocation large enough in both scale and time that, when confronted by it, we have to engage our long-term future. One could imagine that if given only five years to solve an issue like climate change, it is difficult to know where to begin because the time scale is unreasonable. But if you reset the scale to 500 years, even the impossible can start to seem tractable.”

Every once in a while, the bells of this buried clock will chime. Each time, they will sound a new melody because the chimes have been programmed not to repeat themselves for 10,000 years. Ten thousand years is about the age of civilisation – so a 10K-year clock would measure out the future of a civilisation that’s equal to its past.

That assumes we are in the middle of whatever journey we are on – a statement of implicit optimism. The Lindy effect’s evolution from an entertaining commentary on the prowess of jokers into a concept far from funny – but no less engaging – has provided humankind with a revolutionary new/old philosophy.

It’s inspiring to see an example of the Lindy effect and its concept of antifragility intentionally created in this century to be carried forward to the next and beyond. If anything could represent the Lindy effect perfectly, the ambitious 10,000 Year Clock would have to be it.

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in