Pace Layers: Why Fashion Changes Quickly & Governments Don’t

“Countries are not like financial markets. Social change cannot be executed as swiftly as credit-default swaps. You cannot sell short on social commitments and practical responsibilities.” — George Papandreou

Social change is a complicated subject. Governments, filled with bureaucracies and politicians stuck in “the way things are always done” have a hard time changing even the smallest of policies. Cultural morals change, but not much faster. And then you have popular culture, like fashion, the arts, and commerce.

Oscar Wilde said the reason for fashion changing “every six months” is because it’s so ugly. But looking at the government’s idea of “good policy” makes you wonder why you can’t swap the two.

Let fashion change less, and governments more.

If you’re no fan of the two-party system you’re clapping right now.

But sadly, that rate of change never happens. Social change seems to take forever to reach government bureaucrats. Why is that?

Well, here’s a theory that I think will help explain why social change varies from sector to sector. It’s called Pace Layers, and it’s an outline for social impact.

Pace Layers, Explained

“The order of civilization. The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize. The whole combines learning with continuity.” — Stewart Brand

The Pace Layers, a concept formulated by writer Stewart Brand, in his book The Clock of Long Now, outlines the rate of change each facet of society experiences. It’s a guide to society’s rate of change.

The layers; fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature are the specific sections of society where change takes place. The “pace,” or rate of change is dictated by which section you’re in. Fashion has the fastest rate of change, with nature having the slowest.

The main idea behind Brand’s theory was what a healthy society should look like, and how it should work.

The Layers, Explained

The layers; fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature are the building blocks of any healthy society. Each level moves at a different rate of change than the one below and above it. However, these fluctuations in rate of change between each layer add to the cohesion of the whole.

In his introduction of the Pace Layer theory, Stewart explained that:

“In a healthy society each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, safely sustained by the slower levels below and kept invigorated by the livelier levels above.”

This is what Stewart and others call “constructive turbulence.” Conflict between layers keeps the whole thing balanced and flexible.

Fashion is the embodiment of variety. It experiments as creatively and irresponsibly as society can stand. From that comes the force behind commerce. Commerce is as short sighted as fashion, but can influence lower levels through good ideas and practices.

Next up is infrastructure. You can tell Stewart isn’t a big believer in privatization from this section. He argues that infrastructure isn’t that profitable for commercial interests so government needs to come in to setup everything from sewers to roads to government ordained monopolies.

Stewart also makes the error of putting culture behind government. He says “culture is slower than political and economic history,” because “It moves at the pace of language and religion.” Depending on his definition of culture I can understand why he’d do that.

If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ll remember that governments follow change. They’re always the last one get on the bandwagon. This is why I have a problem with putting culture behind government.

Even if you define culture as the overarching moral standards and identity of society, you’ll still find culture to change at a faster rate than governments. Look at our language, morals, and identity over the past few decades and notice how fast it’s changed. Homosexual (and soon transsexual) acceptance is an easy example of quickly shifting cultural morals. As for language, here’s a good TED talk playlist on that.

Finally you have nature. The slowest layer of change. You could argue we don’t want this section to change often (or much), lest bad things happen (hears cries of “global warming” and “extinction” in the background).

The Reality of Change & How it Progresses

There’s a correct path to shifting society’s standards and sensibilities. If you remember my article on The Overton Window you’ll know that you have to change the window of debate before your movement can gain ground.

If the Overton Window is a to-do list of how to go from outsiders to accepted, then Pace Layers dictate where to start.

You start with the farthest outliers of society. They’re on the cuff of social acceptance, but they also drive a lot of what becomes the norm. The two main ones that come to mind are academia (not so much anymore) and crazy internet cultures (Reddit, 4chan, etc). In the Pace Layer diagram, you’d start with fashion, which would include pop culture as well.

Then you move into more established lanes, like commerce. Moving closer and closer to the core of society, and what influences it.

The point is, before you ever influence society for the better, you’ve got to figure out a plan for implementing that influence. You’ve got to understand the flow of social change.

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Originally published at on April 8, 2016.

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