September 7, 2022

The curious idea of the Lindy Effect

Carl Sagan had a famous analogy about how bafflingly old the universe is and how vanishingly short our time in it has been: the “Cosmic Calendar.” On this metaphorical calendar, he puts the Big Bang, nearly 14 billion years ago, at the stroke of midnight on January 1st. Our Milky Way galaxy doesn’t form until May, and our solar system only comes into being on the 9th of September. Life on Earth appears around September 25, and live doesn’t reach land until December 21. In the next week at this scale, we see amphibians, trees, reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals, birds, and flowers. It’s not until the very last day of the year, at 10:30PM, that the first humans appear. And in the final minute, all of human history whizzes by, from cave paintings and the invention of agriculture, to the moon landing and TikTok.

Our time here has been remarkably brief. The world as we have made it is young, and we’re still figuring things out. When even our ancient history seems recent, how should we think about time and what comes next?

One interesting model about how things come and go is called the “Lindy Effect,” named after a mid-century Manhattan diner frequented by “bald-headed, cigar-chomping know-it-alls” who would recreationally theorize about the career lifespan of television comedians. Adapted and tweaked since then, most notably by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2012 book Antifragile, the idea goes:

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!

The longer something has been around, the longer it will probably be around. The Lindy Effect basically assumes that we’re in the middle of everything.

This concept says that it is worth betting on things that have been thriving for a while:

  • Coca-Cola has been around for 130 years
  • Macbeth has been in print for 400 years
  • Sharks evolved 400 million years ago

It’s probably a good investment to put some money in Coca-Cola stock, and it’s realistic to imagine starship travelers reading Shakespeare, or (unless we wipe them out) sharks swimming our oceans long after our own species has disappeared.

And, in the long-run, the Lindy Effect advises being skeptical of things that are too new:

  • High fructose corn syrup was invented in 1957
  • Facebook was founded in 2004
  • Bitcoin was developed in 2009

Are we likely to see HFCS in our foods in the 22nd century? Will our grandkids use Facebook, will banks be accepting Bitcoin in the next decade? Some people would certainly say yes to all of these, but they sure seem like riskier bets that the older examples above, right?

The Lindy Effect applies to nonperishable things that have stood the test of time, like works of art, dietary practices, or cultural norms. It doesn’t apply to things with a natural end-point, like a human lifespan: unfortunately, a 75 year old isn’t very likely to live another 75 years.

I came across this tweet by investor Rex Woodbury recently, and have seen similar predictions about changing perceptions of alcohol over the past couple years.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I honestly think in 30 years society will look at alcohol like we look at tobacco today. You can already see it starting—Gen Z consumes 20% less alcohol than Millennials did at the same age.</p>&mdash; Rex Woodbury (@rex_woodbury) <a href="">August 29, 2022</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

As humans, we’ve been drinking alcohol for 7,000 years. And while we’ve smoked tobacco for a very long time as well, the cigarette and the modern idea of smoking only goes back a couple centuries. While there are plenty of valid reasons for alcohol consumption to ebb and flow, both for individuals and societies at large, I would predict that we’ll be drinking wine around the dinner table far past 30 years from now. Many things change, but most things don’t.

Is the Lindy Effect an immutable law of nature? Not at all, and some proponents that take it too seriously can discount seismic changes with dismissals that ring of “we’ve always done it this way.” But it does offer a unique long-term lens in our rapidly accelerating culture and economy.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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