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This Will Not Always Be a Thing

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My mother’s linen closet door is covered in drawings made by her grandchildren. This gallery is always in rotation, and the subject matter of the artwork changes as the kids age — trucks, sharks, unicorns, skyscrapers.

For a while there was a felt pen drawing of a group of stick figures, all playing with oversized fidget spinners. I presume this picture was drawn in 2017, because the rise and fall of the fidget spinner trend happened almost entirely within that calendar year.

Google search popularity of fidget spinners in 2017: Wikipedia

Over 200 million of the things were sold, making it a nearly one-billion-dollar industry that came and went quicker than the original run of Twin Peaks.

Everything has an era, a life span — ideas, technologies, cultural practices, nations, scientific theories, belief systems, and catch phrases. The longevity of any given thing varies tremendously. Compare the Fidget Spinner Era to that of the Roman Empire (31 BC – 476 AD), the 35mm camera (1913-2006), or even Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980). Some things last longer than others, and not for no reason.

During the lifetime of a given thing, it’s often not clear where in its lifetime you are. If you saw some Shakespeare plays in London in 1593, you might not have guessed that they’d still be in production four hundred years later, even if you recognized them as exceptionally good. In 1986, when you read a Time magazine article about the Soviet Union, you’d never have guessed that six years later there wouldn’t even be a Soviet Union.

The best indication of how long something might exist is how long it has already existed. If an idea or technology has survived for ten or twenty generations, there’s evidently something about it that’s resistant to change, obsolescence, and generation gaps. Something about it sustains itself even as everything around it comes and goes.

Bonkers fruit candy, I hardly knew ye

The humble knife is a good example. An edged tool for cutting tough materials apart is just as useful to 21st-century home chef as it was to a nomadic hunter a hundred thousand years ago. The long past of the knife suggests it will have a long future. In other words, we’re probably not living in the last few years of an eons-long Knife Era.

By the same token, something that has just become “a thing” is less likely to be a long-lasting thing. If everyone around you is suddenly watching rapid-fire videos on something called TikTok, what are the odds we’re in the first few years of a thousand-year TikTok Era?

50 years into the Non-Baseball-Players-Wearing-Baseball-Caps Era

The name for this phenomenon is the Lindy effect: as a general rule, the older something is, the longer it can be expected to survive into the future.

The seed of this idea was formed in the nineteen-sixties by a group of comedians who gathered nightly at Lindy’s diner in New York, to discuss over cigars and coffee the likely longevity of various acts in the comedy scene. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed and popularized the concept in his books, and gave it its current name.

There are exceptions to the Lindy effect, and the rule applies only to non-perishable things that don’t have natural life cycles. A ninety-nine year old man is unlikely to live another ninety-nine years — although his ideas or inventions might.

Pubs: Lindy

Imperfect as it is, the Lindy effect offers a useful heuristic for determining what’s likely to stick around, and implies that there are reasons behind its longevity, which may not be obvious. If it’s a part of culture, perhaps it fills a human need nothing else quite can. Music and dancing are Lindy, as are religion, sport, mind-altering substances, painting, and sculpture. The wider the range of past conditions something has already survived, the broader the range of possible future conditions it’s likely suitable for.

It’s important to note that something being Lindy only suggests there’s a reason it continues to exist — it doesn’t mean it’s good in the moral sense. Alcoholism is Lindy. War is Lindy.

Aside from just being kind of neat, the Lindy effect has some practical uses, especially when it comes to navigating our current age of ephemera and excessive content. A new book might debut on the bestseller list and garner wild praise, but the real test of its greatness is how long it garners praise. Virality and buzz are achieved every day — the test of time is much harder to pass. Lindy points to James Joyce and the Brontë sisters, not Malcolm Gladwell or Steig Larsson. Even more strongly, it points to the Stoics, the Bible, and the Tao Te Ching.

Morally good, but not Lindy

Assessing the Lindyness of things essentially helps you avoid recency bias: the tendency to overestimate the importance of recent experiences. For example, the Lindy effect inspired writer Thomas Wachenfelder to ignore daily news in favor of a weekly catch-up on the weekend: “By then, the day-to-day noise has faded somewhat, allowing content that will be relevant for more than one day rise to the surface. Even better are monthly publications.”

Simply noticing what’s Lindy or not can punch through that haze of recency bias, to determine how likely it is that a present-day thing will still be a thing in a decade, or a century.

The necktie as standard business dress is somewhat Lindy — it might be here in 100 years, but probably not 500.

Christianity isn’t likely to go away in the next century. Scientology, quite possibly.

People will probably still use the phrase “last but not least” in 50 years, but not “circle back” or “touch base.”

Claude Monet may be a well-known name in 200 years. Andy Warhol — less likely. Jeff Koons, much less likely.

Not Lindy

Some things can be so prominent at a given moment in history that they seem like they’ll be here forever, yet they’re not Lindy. The internet is not Lindy. Right now, it’s a huge part of life and culture, but only a generation ago it was a promising curiosity, and two generations ago it was an obscure technology known only to a handful of tech nerds. It’s possible that we’re at the beginning of a thousand-year internet era, but I think it’s more likely that it will morph into something completely different over the next decade or two (as it already has since this blog launched fifteen years ago). Social media already seems past its peak.

(I recommend Sam Kriss’s brilliant essay The Internet is Already Over if you want your mind blown on this question.)

Humans are terrible at predicting the future in large part because of recency bias. We tend to imagine future human life as being like the present, just with some of the dials cranked. Even flatter flatscreens! Cars, but they’ll be flying! We have no reference images of the future, so we can construct future visions only out of familiar present-day phenomena, usually by simply exaggerating them. This is why futuristic visions drawn in the 1960s look so 1960s. They don’t resemble the 1990s or 2000s that actually happened.

As seen through the veil of time

Yet, the Lindy effect gives us a halfway reliable instrument for predicting which parts of now might remain in 100 or 1000 years — and which parts future people will likely jettison. I can only guess, but I’d bet in a hundred years they’ll have ditched rapid-fire video content, pumpkin spice espresso drinks, and the concept of microaggressions, while long walks, vegetable gardens, and gatherings around fireplaces will remain.

Lindyness is a gentle suggestion to zoom out and look beyond today’s most prominent, attention-grabbing ideas, books, diversions, hobbies, and beliefs, and instead take some implicit advice from the diverse range of people who lived, and will live, outside of the weather of our current moment.


Update: Originally I had a different Jeff Koons sculpture pictured, which I didn’t know was a memorial to victims of the 2015 Paris attacks. This photo selection was not intended as a criticism of the sculpture, or of Koons, only the non-Lindyness of that art style. Memorials are Lindy — shiny balloon scultures probably not.

Long to-do list? (Discount ends soon!)

My book How to Do Things: Productivity for the Productivity-Challenged is on sale for a few more days. Get it now.

Productivity books are usually written by high-achievers who never struggled to get things done. The rest of us find other ways.

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Images by Namroud Gourguis, Spyda-Man, Nathan Dumlao, Chucky Darko, Christian Gebhardt, and Lloyd Birmingham

DiscoveredJoys September 15, 2023 at 7:27 am

One of those tiny epiphanies struck me when I was looking at another person’s file structure (for RISC OS). There were all the normal folders for the operating system plus another labelled ‘Distractions’ for all those games and media items that were not essential.

It seems to me that one of the (many) ways of categorising the world is into Lindys or Distractions. It is difficult to imagine a world with no Distractions simply because so many people want to provide Distractions for those that want to be distracted.

And yet, as an individual, through meditation, mindfulness or some other discipline it is possible to let the Distractions slide through our thoughts without leaving evidence of their passing. Possible, but determined effort will be required…

David Cain September 15, 2023 at 10:19 am

I had a similar thought earlier this year. I’m *highly* prone to distraction and so the smartphone era has been tough for me. One day I realized that at any given moment, I was either in some kind of distraction-induced stasis (e.g. doomscrolling, daydreaming) or I was doing something intentional. Intention or stasis. Our current age is massively distracting, so much so that it can turn most of a person’s life into a kind of stasis, with relatively little intention. I don’t think “society of distractions” is Lindy, because the cost is too great and the benefit too small, on a personal level, for so many people.

Ann September 15, 2023 at 9:46 am

Speaking of “circle back”…What I want to be over is “let me reach out” “I’ll reach out to you.” I feel like saying, “stop touching me and just CALL me back.” I despise these ridiculous speech methods of the business world. So, have a good “rest of your day” (eye roll). And if I hear “perfect” one more time….. Does no one think then speak by their own thoughts?

David Cain September 15, 2023 at 10:25 am

“Reach out” is a big one. It is so interesting how phrases come and go. In this article I used the phrase “a thing” as in “this is totally ‘a thing’ right now” which is definitely a 21st century phrase my 1990 self would find weird. But it’s just so useful.

Anyway, in writing this article I found this list of 600+ cliches to avoid in writing (and possibly speech too). I found it fascinating that some of them are so common that you don’t even realize they’re cliches, precisely because they come to the tongue so easily — they can feel like your own constructions, but they’re not.

Of course, they’re so ingrained that we can’t really get by without them (such as phrases like, “can’t get by without it”). Worth a browse:


MarthaW September 15, 2023 at 11:09 am

Interesting and timely. I’ve been thinking all summer of ways to document my largish collection of art, so that after my death my people will have an idea as to which have some value, which have family history, etc. All sorts of digitizing and notating schemes have been suggested, but just yesterday I decided the smart thing to do is to write the info on index cards and put them on the back of each piece. Because that little USB drive with all the digital info? Who knows if it will be readable 20 or 30 years (hopefully) from now. Writing on a piece of paper is definitely Lindy.

David Cain September 15, 2023 at 2:08 pm

The survivability of digital data is an interesting question. I always thought of it as “permanent” until fairly recently, but what happened to all those flloppy disks and CD-Rs I saved things to? Keeping huge piles of data is one thing, but the more I have the less likely any particular piece of data is going to be recovered in the future. Paper at least has a physical presence that is hard to ignore, at least if it is taped to the object in question.

Carol September 15, 2023 at 12:25 pm

Gardens and fireplaces? Gardens that need land will be increasingly scarce as more and more real estate is used to build housing for people and accessory dwelling units increase, using up back yard real estate. Vertical gardening is possible, but expensive technology is required for it. Burning wood in fireplaces is already banned sometimes, in Denver at least, and gathering round a quiet, odorless gas flame doesn’t have the same ambiance.

David Cain September 15, 2023 at 2:15 pm

I think you are maybe ovextrapolating. A garden can just be a box of dirt. A fireplace can just be a circle of rocks on the ground. These things are never going away. Expensive technologies can become cheap technologies, and technologies we aren’t forecasting at all can quickly become widespread.

Just for fun, consider zooming out and quesitoning the idea that everything is reaching a head, that everything is running out, that history is about to stop. That’s a common way to interpret our situation right now, but I am not sure it will continue to be forever. As time goes on things inevitably look different than a decade earlier, and expectations about the future change. Once-common worldviews become fringe, and once-fringe worldviews become common. So it goes.

Bob WM September 17, 2023 at 10:04 pm

The idea of Lindyness, the test of stickiness, is highly thought-provoking and seems correct. But today I also happened to read about the world’s 2nd richest guy, Bernard Arnault, and wondered if he, and Lindyness, are right after all. Any thoughts?

“He was always saying, ‘The iPhone is great, but who knows if we will be using an iPhone in 10 years?’” Mr. Rogers, the former chief digital officer, said. “‘Whereas I know people will continue to drink Dom Pérignon.’” NY Times

Lola September 18, 2023 at 6:59 am

just so true

David Cain September 18, 2023 at 9:15 am

The increasing pace of technological advancement complicates things somewhat. If you’re over forty, you’ve definitely noticed that our lives change more rapidly now than they used to, because technologies arrive faster and are more disruptive to the status quo. Smartphones are incredibly disruptive, so muchdo that it’s hard to imagine they won’t at least be very different in ten years, or maybe supplanted by something else entirely. They are not Lindy, in the sense that they’re not resilient to obsolescence or changing ways of life.

Ironically, the disruptiveness of a new technology, as you’re living through it — how it takes over culture so quickly — makes it seem like a permanent change, because of how forcefully it changes things, but I think that only hints at how it’s not going to last.

Milli September 22, 2023 at 11:49 am

These comments, not Lindy

Rain October 6, 2023 at 1:50 pm

I think this is definitely a good heuristic, but i can see how it can be over-used. Everything that existed for a long time, but doesnt anymore was also Lindy, all the way until it broke the theory and went on to end. And everything that has existed for a long time at one time was not Lindy, but broke the theory by persisting.

also, just a side bar, microagressions are unfortunately VERY Lindy, only the specific word used to describe them is new.

David Cain October 9, 2023 at 10:06 am

It does contain an apparent paradox, because it is a bell curve. Despite the principle being basically true, we can always be at the beginning or the end of a very long tenure.

Disagree about the concept of microaggressions. Obviously offending people intentionally or unintentionally is as old as time. Inventorying these slights as a kind of social currency, and claiming that only the offendee’s opinion on said slight matters, is new.

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