A tale of technologies

By Robert Hickson 15/03/2013


If Charles Dickens was alive today and writing about technology, would he re-pen something like this:

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of light, it is the season of darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair.

 

Some commentators, such as Ray Kurzweil and the European Commission, think the pace of technological change is accelerating.  (as judged by time to widespread adoption). That seems true for some particular technologies, but isn’t a universal rule. Techno-optimists also believe that we are entering a golden age of technological innovation.

Others  lament that technological innovation, at least in the US, has slowed over the last 40 years. Peter Thiel has put the blame on inventors and venture capitalists for failing to think big and take greater risks. That is too sweeping; look at entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, gene sequencing technologies, and some of the clean/smart energy developments.

As the New York Times notes, predictions of technological utopia and doom are two extremes that overstate the issue. Aspects of both may eventuate.

Robert J Gordon has noted that several factors influence innovation (technological and otherwise). He identified six current “headwinds” [Pdf] that have the potential to slow it down:

  • Declining birth-rates;
  • Plateauing of levels of educational attainment;
  • Rising inequality;
  • Increasing outsourcing of a diverse range of jobs to other countries;
  • The need for energy systems that are less harmful to the environment; and
  • High levels of household and government debt.

Such constraints can, of course, also provide great conditions for stimulating innovation. Several of them also don’t apply to non-western countries. So rather than global stagnation, we may see a shift in hotbeds of innovation.

Declarations of slower or faster pace of change are, however, often fallacious because we don’t have good metrics for measuring meaningful technological change. You can cherry pick data to support your point of view, and since technologies don’t all move at the same speed you can point to a lack of flying cars as our technological failing, or the very rapid growth in computational power as a sign that technological progress is in an exponential growth phase.

As a former evolutionary biologist I tend to view technologies as following more of a punctuated equilibrium-style model – periods of more rapid change alternating with stages of less dramatic refinement (plateaus or equilibria) – rather than relentless and accelerating progress. Or what The Economist calls the ebbs and flows of innovation.

The Economist article notes that many of the paradigm changing inventions –fire, agriculture, electricity, automobiles, powered flight, etc. happened some time ago and many subsequent developments have just been variations on these themes. However, it also points out that technologies developed in the last few decades (such as the internet, biotechnologies and solar power) have yet to reach their full economic and societal potential.

The “scientific revolution” that began 500 years ago signaled a fundamental change in how we viewed the world. But now we seem to be entering a new phase of improving our abilities to shape the world and ourselves.

Technology adoption is not inevitable nor impervious to influence. In an article in Slate summarizing his book, Evgeny Morozov notes the need to challenge technological defeatism – the view that we can’t stop or shape how technologies are used.  He illustrates this by harking back a century to debate about noise control. [Although this seems a weak example since it is less to do with a specific technology and more about community concerns to environmental factors.]

 The Economist article noted above suggests that a critical factor governing pace of change is not technological inventiveness but the declining ability for organisations and institutions to cope with revolutionary change. Economics and market demand also come into it. The World Economic Forum has also emphasized the need to develop new ways of thinking about how to develop and use technologies.

As another Dickensian novel suggested

Train up a fig-tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade of it.