If you’re an engineer, creep is the slow, permanent deformation of a body resulting from the continued application of heat or stress. If you’re a regular human, it might signify stealthy movement, or perhaps a detestable person. To a select few, Creep is a song from Radiohead’s Pablo Honey album. The fact that a creep can creep while listening to Creep is one of the many delights of the English language.
The detestable thing about stealthy movement, aka creep, is that it often ends badly. As we learned from the classic boiled frog parable, we are wired to detect sudden large changes, but often miss the accumulated effect of many small ones. Twenty years ago, Dick Carlson warned Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, overlooking how the big stuff actually gets big to begin with.
My wife and I used to enjoy a Sunday brunch buffet at a rooftop restaurant along the California coast where the outer ring of tables rotated once every hour. I suspect that the rate was carefully chosen so as to avoid motion sickness (not a good thing in a restaurant), and yet still offer a pleasantly shifting view of the coastline. Both the food and the panorama were wonderful, but it was a bit unsettling to go for seconds only to find that the omelet station had moved.
Gradual change is pervasive. Hard drives leisurely fill up, computers gradually slow down, relationships evolve from stimulating to boring, jobs transition from great to average to former. Small movements in the tectonic plates are no more than a scientific curiosity until the accumulated stress is suddenly released. For further clarification, just Google “Valdivia.”
Times of rapid change are populated by three kinds of people; those that make things happen, those that watch closely to see what will happen, and those that eventually wonder what happened. Creeping change, on the other hand, affects all of us the same. The pleasantly soporific sway of the status quo nurtures an illusion of control that gets us through the day. The bus just keeps rolling along; sometimes you’re driving, and sometimes you’re not. Meanwhile the adrenals take a much-needed break.
In pursuit of this relief, our toolmakers keep finding ways to insulate us from unnecessary busy work, minimize interruptions and free us to do bigger things. But there is a large gap between what is promised and what we realize. As any good psychologist will tell you, being is always easier than becoming.
Those of us who make our living in technology fields are equipped with sophisticated instruments that spew big data into the cloud and leave it there for us to mine and ponder. We are comfortable in the knowledge that we can know and do virtually anything, and yet it is precisely that comfort that lulls us into inaction.
We have become highly evolved metathesiophobics, and yet the small changes that we strive for are even more dangerous. There’s a lot more at stake here than a lost omelet opportunity.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.
Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.
Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.