Back in prehistoric times when I studied elementary classical physics, things were pretty simple. And linear. And smooth. And predictable. We learned about displacement, velocity and acceleration and that was that. Forces and acceleration were steady and unchanging, if they applied at all.

Since then I’ve learned that physics (and life) is a bit more complicated, of course. Today I was reading about the pace of technological change, and discovered that not only is such change accelerating, but the acceleration is accelerating. They have a name for the acceleration of acceleration. It’s called jerk.

I suppose there are examples of jerk all around us if we care to look:

  • A garage door opener starts the door moving by jerking its chain.
  • A freight train gets underway, banging and crashing its couplings as it does.
  • A dog owner hauls back on the choke chain to stop his enraged canine from tearing another hapless animal limb from limb.

I can think of other more violent jerks but I don’t have the stomach to discuss them here.

If jerk is involved in your process it’s called a jerk system. Unlike the smooth linearity of (say) the planets in their orbits, jerk systems are rather nasty and brutish. Many of them are chaotic, with feedback, complexity and the possibility of becoming a Black Swan. The growth of the Internet, programmed stock selling in crisis times, a global epidemic, the development of an F5 tornado – all jerky examples I can think of.

We were all told in our workplace career to “embrace change” but I believe what our masters had in mind was orderly change, not chaos. In fact, I’m not sure how programmed humanity is to deal with jerk systems. Our earliest ancestors understood well enough the concepts of walking around to gather nuts and berries, and run away from predators – but those are linear situations most of the time. Introduce chaos and jerk into that and you have “things that go bump in the night.”

Oh sure, Tom Peters talks about “thriving on chaos” but there is still some element of control in his approach to it all. Real chaos is like Hurricane Katrina and the Superdome. It’s survival, not thriving that is at stake.

So even if I learned today about jerk and jerk systems I’m not anxious to experience them beyond opening the garage door, thank you. “And lead us not into chaos, but deliver us from jerks. Amen.”


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