The Technological Evolution

There’s an interesting and probably counter-intuitive article by Scott Locklin, challenging the prevailing wisdom, that you might be interested in. 1959 was remarkably different from 1909 in almost every conceivable way. Technology had changed the world.

Will 2059 be as different from today as 1959 was from 1909? Maybe not so much:

The world of 1959 is pretty much the same world we live in today technologically speaking. This is a vaguely horrifying fact which is little appreciated. In 1959, we had computers, international telephony, advanced programming languages like Lisp, which remains the most advanced programming language, routine commercial jet flight, atomic power, internal combustion engines about the same as modern ones, supersonic fighter planes, television and the transistor.

I’d go so far as to say that the main technological innovation since 1959 has been space flight—a technology we’ve mostly abandoned, and it’s daughter technology—microelectronics. Computer networks came a year or two after 1959 and didn’t change very much, other than how we waste time in the office, and whom advertisers pay.

Other than that, man’s power over nature remains much the same. Most of the “advances” we have had since then are refinements and democratization of technologies. Nowadays, even the little people have access to computers and jet flight, and 1800s-style technology like telegraphy can be used to download pornography into their homes. Certainly more people are involved in “technological” jobs, and certainly computers have increased our abilities to process information, but ultimately very little has changed.

Read the whole thing.

Here’s Alfred Nordmann’s similar take:

I’d argue that I have seen less technological progress than my parents did, let alone my grandparents. Born in 1956, I can testify primarily to the development of the information age, fueled by the doubling of computing power every 18 to 24 months, as described by Moore’s Law. The birth-control pill and other reproductive technologies have had an equally profound impact, on the culture if not the economy, but they are not developing at an accelerating speed. Beyond that, I saw men walk on the moon, with little to come of it, and I am surrounded by bio- and nanotechnologies that so far haven’t affected my life at all. Medical research has developed treatments that make a difference in our lives, particularly at the end of them. But despite daily announcements of one breakthrough or another, morbidity and mortality from cancer and stroke continue practically unabated, even in developed countries.

Now consider the life of someone who was born in the 1880s and died in the 1960s—my grandmother, for instance. She witnessed the introduction of electric light and telephones, of automobiles and airplanes, the atomic bomb and nuclear power, vacuum electronics and semiconductor electronics, plastics and the computer, most vaccines and all antibiotics. All of those things mattered greatly in human terms, as can be seen in a single statistic: child mortality in industrialized countries dropped by 80 percent in those years.

That’s very much the way in which I react when I read an interview with Ray Kurzweil: what in the world is he talking about? Right off the top of my head I can think of a dozen technological developments that were right around the corner 40 years ago and remain much where they were then. Among them are artificial intelligence, practical fusion, and the hydrogen economy.

In a sense what Scott is saying stands to reason. Technologically speaking, we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and the real, dramatic, innovative technology will be much more difficult and expensive. We’re also not investing in technology (other than, possibly, medical technology) at the rate we were a couple of decades ago and that lack of investment will inevitably show.

And in another sense it may always have been this way. Technology isn’t a process of revolution; it’s one of evolution. Each new development is just an elaboration on previous developments.

It may also be that, particularly here in the United States, we have incorporated change into our system to such a degree that it no longer appears to be change at all.

If he’s wrong about technology in any area, I suspect it’s about materials. It strikes me that there have been enormous changes in materials in recent years.

Will the world of 2059 be as different from today as the world of 1959 was from 1909? Are there any truly novel technologies that weren’t in hand in some form in 1959?

Your turn to talk.

4 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    Just an observation: 1909 is a pretty significant time for technological changes that entered the home for the first time. I recall a documentary on just that time period (1900-1910), premised on the notion that for the first time the average American owned things (or had them in his house) that he didn’t necessarily know how they worked.

  • ((((((((Let’s) not) get) int0) an) argument) about) Lisp)

    Actually, the real shortcoming in his observations was that there is a point where a difference in degree is a difference in kind. There is a fundamental difference between a world with a dozen building-sized computers of (by today’s standards) essentially no power or flexibility, and ubiquitous general purpose computers small enough to carry in your pocket. The processing power necessary to log into a secure website from your iPhone simply didn’t exist in 1959, even with all the computers in the world combined: it would have taken years to generate the encrypted password.

  • Oh, and as for specific technologies, he is ignoring biotech, and all that has flowed and will flow from that. It is possible that by 2059, the average human life span in developed countries will be significantly longer, for instance. It is also possible that, within that time frame, genetic engineering to cure diseases such as downs syndrome will be available as in utero procedures.

  • Computer networks came a year or two after 1959 and didn’t change very much, other than how we waste time in the office, and whom advertisers pay.

    Mmmmm…no, not going to buy it, not totally. I’m thinking that there are far fewer people doing what was done in 1959. I do lots of statistical work, and I imagine that to do the kind of work I do know would take quite a few more people. Yes we still waste time, but by 1959 standards I might very well be doing the work of 10 or even 20 people. Running a few regressions on a computer was a big deal. I can do it in an hour. Nevermind the amount of data that I pull in from a variety of sources and then send it out to other people with remarkable ease.

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