Lindy Effect

Antifragile by Matt Blease

The Lindy Effect is a theory of the permanence of non-perishable things. Unlike biological organisms, the life expectancy of an idea or technology increases as it ages. The origin of the concept can be traced to biographer Albert Goldman and a 1964 article he wrote for ‘The New Republic’ titled ‘Lindy’s Law.’ In it he stated that ‘the future career expectations of a television comedian is proportional to the total amount of his past exposure on the medium.’ The term refers to a NY deli known as a hangout for comedians; they would ‘foregather every night at Lindy’s, where… they conduct post-mortems on recent show biz ‘action.’

Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot formally coined the term ‘Lindy Effect’ in his 1984 book ‘The Fractal Geometry of Nature.’ Mandelbrot expressed mathematically that for certain things bounded by the life of the producer, like human promise, future life expectancy is proportional to the past: ‘However long a person’s past collected works, it will on the average continue for an equal additional amount. When it eventually stops, it breaks off at precisely half of its promise.’

Lebanese American statistician Nassim Taleb furthered the idea in his 2007 book ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ by extending to a certain class of nonperishables where life expectancy can be expressed as power laws (a functional relationship between two quantities, where one quantity varies as an exponent of another): ‘With human projects and ventures we have another story. These are often scalable, as I said in Chapter 3. With scalable variables… you will witness the exact opposite effect. Let’s say a project is expected to terminate in 79 days, the same expectation in days as the newborn female has in years. On the 79th day, if the project is not finished, it will be expected to take another 25 days to complete. But on the 90th day, if the project is still not completed, it should have about 58 days to go. On the 100th, it should have 89 days to go. On the 119th, it should have an extra 149 days. On day 600, if the project is not done, you will be expected to need an extra 1,590 days. As you see, the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait.’

In Taleb’s followup book in 2012, ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder,’ he for the first time explicitly referred to his idea as the ‘Lindy Effect,’ removed the bounds of the life of the producer to include anything that doesn’t have a natural upper bounds and incorporated it into his broader theory of the Antifragile: ‘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!’

Mandelbrot was a teacher of Taleb and agreed with his expanded definition of the ‘Lindy Effect’: ‘[Taleb] suggested the boundary perishable/nonperishable and [Mandelbrot] agreed that the nonperishable would be power law distributed while the perishable (the initial Lindy story) worked as a mere metaphor.’ According to Taleb, the Lindy Effect ‘… allows us to figure out how time and things work without quite getting inside the complexity of time’s mind. Time is scientifically equivalent to disorder, and things that gain from disorder are ‘antifragile.” So things that have been in existence for a long period of time can be considered more robust/antifragile (i.e., more likely to continue to survive) than new things that haven’t passed the test of time.

Given this, the Lindy Effect can be used to distinguish random survivors from non-random survivors and gauge the fragility of a thing which provides information that can help with decision making. For example: Origin of New Diseases (diseases that have no deep historical traceability are likely to be either diseases of modernity or not diseases at all, but invented conditions), Reading (books that have been in existence for hundreds of years are likely to be in existence for hundreds of years more — in other words, reading things that are new are more likely to become instantly obsolete), and Burden of Evidence (when things that have survived for a long time and hence are expected to survive for a long time such as the natural world are challenged the burden of evidence is not on the thing that survived but on the thing disrupting it — e.g. genetically modified organisms, nuclear waste).

Other examples include: Books (physical books are more robust than electronic documents as electronic file formats common ten years ago are no longer accessible today whereas physical books from hundred of years ago can still be read), Policy Setting (certain professions deemed by society as undesirable have survived the test of time such as prostitution and bookmaking, and should be be regulated rather than prohibited outright), Project Management (because the life expectancy of a project grows exponentially up to an upper bound point of cost managers should use tinkering, continuous, repetitive, small, and localized mistakes, as a method to mitigate project schedule risks), and Education (students shouldn’t eschew subjects that have been around for a few centuries such as philosophy, mathematics, engineering and natural sciences over new modern subjects like social sciences and business).

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