The first is material, and it’s the one people think of when they think of change. This kind of change is profound and permanent. Becoming different. A change of career, for example, or a chemical change.
Often, modest change falls into this category: changes of mind, or changes of clothes, or changes of scenery. Changing the paint color in the bedroom. Maybe you could scrape most of the new paint off later, but the wall would never really be the same.
The second kind of change is cyclical. This is change that recurs. The changing of the leaves in autumn. Changing a light bulb, or changing a baby. Changing gears in a manual-transmission automobile. Changing British pounds sterling for U.S. dollars.
Cyclical change repeats. When it does, it more or less preserves its context, even if not all its materials. This is change that rotates novelty around a central stasis. The seasons change in coordination with the Earth’s rotational axis and its orbit around the sun. The light bulb and the diaper change in relation to the ongoing operation of lamp and bum.
But then there’s a third kind of change. This change happens on the inside of things. Instead of a change that makes something different, it’s a change that makes something what it is already—but even more so. Let’s call it deep change.
Like cyclical change, deep change repeats. And in its repetition, deep change can also embark on projects of material change. But the thing changed is preserved in the process. The work of physical exercise is deep change, as the body reforms and revises itself in order to become leaner or more muscular.
Material change is a line. A vector, really: the arrow of time, moving ever forward. This is change that cannot be undone. It moves from one place to another, never to return again.
Material change works by incorporation and ejection. Something becomes different by introducing an agent of novelty or by jettisoning an agent of stasis. The “disruption” common to Silicon Valley style innovation is obsessed with ejection.
The consolidation common to markets is obsessed with incorporation. But more ordinary examples also persist. The desire to change jobs or careers, for example, or even significant others, assumes that the best—and perhaps the only—change is disruptive change.
Cyclical change is a circle. No surprise here. It traverses territory before returning to the place it started.
Cyclical change works by inertia. This is the change that happens without you looking. It’s what makes our chests quietly convulse as we look at a child who is now nearly an adult. It’s what makes the ebb of summer and the flow of autumn feel tender.
But it’s also what makes the light bulb and the diaper and the lawn and the commute seem unremarkable. Just chaff, just noise. The things people must stomach while they wait for the “real change” of material change to come along.
Deep change is a helix. It spins round like cyclical change, but deeper into itself. Like an auger, the helical-bitted drill that bores holes into the ground.
Deep change works by play. But not the play of doing whatever you want. Not the play of leisure, not the play that opposes work. The deep, deliberate play that works something.
Like the auger’s work, deep change is boring. Both piercing and stultifying. It drills into matter and heads alike. Deep change pores over the details again and again, presuming rather than hoping that something is still left uncovered.
The paradox of deep change is that, done right, it looks like stasis. Everything remains the same on the surface. The same lawn gets mowed weekly, fertilized monthly, aerated annually. The same relationship with the same spouse or friend or child proceeds apace, but newly cultured. The same commute to work is made more efficient or less tedious. The same expertise at a sport or hobby or profession improves steadily if subtly.
Deep change is the change that makes people and things more what they are. And in particular, deep change allows people, places, and things to better commune with other people, places and things by offering them renewed reason to engage with them.
In this sort of play, we accept the constraints of a thing (or person, or event), and proceed with the hard work of figuring out how that structure makes it what it is.
A game of chess or soccer or Tetris cannot exist without the limitations that comprise them. The pieces, the board, the pitch, the rules, the logic, the structure. The point isn’t to turn commuting or parenting into a game, but to recognize that games offer a model for how to take material constraints seriously. Play isn’t idle distraction, but the intensive, serious process of working with something deliberately until new possibilities emerge.
Deep change is an underdog. It’s far more desirable, fashionable, and perhaps even profitable to pursue material and cyclical change. Disruptive products that unseat old industries. Supposedly life-changing advice and practices. Services and habits that maintain and even protect against cyclical repetition.
When faced with the fundamental unconcern of reality, what are you going to do about it? Material change promises alternative. Cyclical change offers evasion. Change is assumed to be destructive, but when closely examined, change is constructive By contrast, deep change offers communion. To live in the world by treating it for what it is, rather than always wishing it were something different.
Author Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic