Gradually, Then Suddenly

One argument favored by education futurists is that while things have changed little in the past century they may change quickly when we least expect it. AI is often cited as a possible trigger. A Hemingway quote from The Sun Also Rises provides the title and context for this idea.

Quoting Hemingway

How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked.

‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’

-The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemingway. Via Asymco post


The idea is that dying industries go through a familiar sequence of steps. First, technology introduces affordances that chip away at a long-standing business model. The chipping is so slow that the industry begins to think the threat is overhyped. But just when the industry breathes a sigh of relief, everything collapses.

Cell phone and landline usage grew together, then landline adoption slowed. Then came the relentless decline. source

This pattern *does* repeat itself with a disturbing frequency. Initially, cell phones were seen as a threat to landlines. Then, for a while cell phone adoption exploded while landline adoption also increased then stabilized.

During this time a narrative developed. Maybe these two technologies were complementary. From the late 1990s to around 2002 it seemed like the danger had passed -- over 150 million cellphones had been absorbed into the U.S. population with almost no impact on landlines.

Around 2001/2002 that narrative begins to die. But even then people can still claim that while subscriptions are stalling, mobile-only households are rare. In 2002 there were close to zero cell-phone only households. And even by 2008 only 17% of households are mobile-online. The landline is still a complement.

But it took only a mild acceleration in adoption to destroy that narrative. From 2008 to 2011 cell-phone only households nearly double. This year they will become the dominant model. The story just gets worse from there.

You can find the same pattern in other industries. Newspapers began to worry about the internet in the 1980s, but for a while profited from the technology more than suffered. By 1999 they could be excused for thinking they weathered the storm. History proved otherwise.

Video stores and bookstores were surprisingly resilient in the face of digital reproduction. Until they weren't.

Cable TV is likely unergoing a similar process as we speak. post

Education isn't a telephone or cable service, and people who have mistaken education for a technology or form of content (cough, Christensen, cough) have been proved more wrong than right.

That said, there *is* an education industry, and Slowly, then Suddenly *is* a real thing. Disrupting Education may be a phrase tossed around by more hucksters than scholars, but quick slides are very real, and the reminder that the human mind tends to misinterpret certain types of non-linear decay as stabilization is worth remembering.


Artificial Intelligence is often seen as a potential disruptor.