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Matthew Lucas
Matthew Lucas

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Knowledge that Stands the Test of Time — The Lindy Effect

When we think of ageing we tend to think of biological systems, of growing old. Things in the natural world, perishable things, have a finite life. For each passing day, the predicted lifespan reduces.

It is easy to fall into the same mode of thinking for non-perishable things, such as an idea. An idea, however, isn’t limited by physical bounds. As long as it still circulates in our collective brains it can continue to exist.

But an idea ages in ways other than time. The useful ideas stick around and the useless ones, no matter the initial hype, eventually fade away.

The Lindy Effect — Age in Reverse

There is a tendency in our technology-obsessed culture to value the novel over the long-lived. New York Times bestsellers present the newest ideas and media outlets inject news stories and life-hacks directly into our pockets. The pace of information can be relentless, but how much of it stands the test of time? How do we know what to pay attention to and what to ignore?

The Lindy Effect, as re-popularized by Nassim Taleb in his 2012 book Antifragile, gives us a heuristic to choose where we should focus our attention. The principle centres around this — the longer something has survived, and is still in use, the larger its remaining life expectancy.

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life! “— Nassim Taleb

Time acts as a natural filter of ideas. Those that stick around after tens of years are usually important enough to be worth our attention. They have proven resistance to change or obsolescence.

“The robustness of an item is proportional to it’s life"

How much released in the past year or two will survive more than a decade — very little — likely a waste of time.

What about technology?

Technology, and software development, in particular, are fast-paced, new things popping up each day. A key factor in being a successful software engineer is life-long learning. As new technologies come and go the developer needs to adapt or be left behind. Because of this, it’s tempting to scramble to learn the latest craze over anything else.

There’s little in software that hasn’t been seen before in a slightly different guise. Functional programming (lambda calculus) was developed in the 1930s and Lisp in the 1950s, but only in recent decades were the techniques popularized in the mainstream. SCRUM came to the forefront in the 00s, but was refined from principles learned in the US air force in the 60s (read Jeff Sutherland’s excellent book for the full story). Object-oriented programming and design patterns have been a mainstay of most programming languages since Smalltalk in the 80s. In reality, there’s little new, just variations on a theme.

Learn robust ideas

By reading books that have stood the test of time, and by studying ideas that have been around more than a few years, we’re building a solid foundation of successful principles. This is rather than hanging onto the coattails of the latest fad, the majority of which will inevitably be culled by the Lindy effect.

By concentrating on fundamental ideas, rather than sticking to the whims of a specific framework or library, we can construct valuable mental models that allow us to learn any technology more quickly.

So, the next time you have a study day or are browsing the shelves for a new book — think Lindy.

Further reading

A final word

This post was written as part of a series on laws of software development for #PragProWriMo 2021 run by the The Pragmatic Programmers.

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