Technological stagnation

Donald Pittenger at 2 Blowhards makes a good case that the pace of technological change is slower today than it was several decades ago, and that the “century of maximum change” is actually the period 1825-1925.

I tend to agree. We’re in a period of relative technological stagnation.

What went wrong? And what can be done about it?

And why do so few people seem to think that it’s even a problem?

18 thoughts on “Technological stagnation”

  1. Maybe the reason we are in the stagnation you mention, is the technologies that we have developed actively stimy our drive to invent.

    I think the Television is a perfect example. It has become an opiate to the masses, and for the hours that its consumers stare at it, they are rendered unproductive, absorbers of usually saccharin and fictional narratives.

    The result is our more vulnerable TV-consumers, our impressionable youth, get their economics lessons from comedy shows, and their politics from MTV. And the networks, sensing their influence on this demographic, are more than happy to keep up this masquerade.

    When I was a kid, my grandma made us turn off the set, and go out and play. I whined and sulked for a while, then went out and constructed a log-fort with my cousins.

  2. I don’t know if we should buy this. Not all technology, not all important technology, translates into new modes of transportation or communication.

    Sure, there were some changes that revolutionised life but there’s really no causal connection between the marginal gain in scientific knowledge and the marginal gain in consumer comfort.

    The degree to which the latest science is translated into great products is up to the entrepreneur and less to the scientist.

    And then there’s the issue of comparability. How efficiently could we produce 19th century goods? Very efficiently. But those products are obsolete now.

    Maybe progress is like happiness… it’s not about the absolute amount of knowledge but more about the steepness of the last step.

    I’d like to see a model on this… a marginal equilibrium of research expenditure with a bunch of parameters?

  3. I agree with your comment on the 2Blowhards post: govt regulation is a large part of the problem.

  4. There are those who disagree: Ray Kurzweil, for one. They see technology progressing so fast that it’s impossible to determine the rate of the progress any more (the Singularity).

  5. The Law of Diminishing Returns applies to technology. The telegraph was a bigger change to the world of hand written letters physically delivered than e-mail was to a world of fax machines. The technological chages in my lifetime post WWII are less than those in my grandfather’s lifetime 1890 to 1970.

  6. Tech advances slowed down by Gov’t. regulation.

    I think we can expand that comment to include large bureaucracies in both government and the private sector. Generally speaking big hierarchical organizations tend to become entrenched and stifle innovation.

  7. I don’t think that progress is stagnating. Technology is a lot more unobtrusive nowadays, and not in your face as it used to be. I think that progress is as fast as ever, even if not as visible as it was in the past.

  8. When I think back to my own childhood, (the first one, not this second one), and compare the intrusion of scientific advances into how I lived each day, I find the stated thesis implausible.

    Technology is not just more machines or more electronics, although these play a significant role, it is an atmosphere surrounding how we live. And, on that scale, the comparison between the 40’s and 50’s and today is clearly on today’s side.

    The youth growing up today eat, sleep, breath, and educate with technology at a level my generation cannot even understand. Health issues that obsessed my mother are gone—polio, measles, etc., information is available on a scale incomprehensible to someone like me who went to the library to do research in an encyclopedia, travel that used to be the option only of the wealthy is now commonplace for blue collar and other middle class people, and the very conception of work has changed fundamentally.

    Even more significant for the future, the developments in information technology, which are powerful and pervasive throughout what has become a world culture, and developments in biochemistry are converging in ways which may soon challenge us to consider a redefinition of what constitutes human and/or sentient life in legal and moral terms.

    In my humble opinion, that development alone is more challenging than anything we have had to deal with previously, especially if it means extended life spans, and I mean significantly extended, which rearrange our ancient conceptions of what human aging and death mean.

    I consider those questions to be essentially more challenging and revolutionary in cultural terms than the creation of mechanical labor saving devices or new methods of doing old tasks.

    Our children and grandchildren are going to face moral, legal, and cultural value choices unprecedented in human history. My constant harping on the inadequacies of the educational system, indeed, its obsolescence, is directly connected to the enormous challenges that are clearly looming on the horizon.

    These are questions that will require fine, careful reasoning and thoughtful decision making, qualities not often found in the dumbed down, muti-culti crapola that passes for education in the current culture. My hope is that the dissatisfaction of those enduring this second rate perversion of education will be motivated to demand something better for their own children.

    Technological advances are not only more fundamental and pervasive than before, but are accelerating at an astonishing rate, as each movement amplifies the effects of previous developments, and the ripples in the pond grow stronger and longer lasting.

    If we can survive our own emotional immaturity and intellectual shortcomings, something astonishing is waiting for us, every bit as transforming as the discovery of previously unknown continents.

  9. I think the era of the industrial revolution looks like an era of greater change because it represented the shift from a society based on power from biological organism to one based on fossil fuels and machines. I think it appears to many that everything since has just been variations on a theme. A lot of technological change is simply hidden. Nobody notices really when the lifetime on the plastic in the casing of the cell phone triples for example.

    I think that we are currently in a revolutionary era as great as that of the industrial revolution. We are shifting to a true information economy. Fifty years from now we will look back at the “turn of the century/millennium” and marvel at how it marked such a profound change.

  10. On the one hand an IPod is a freakin’ Walkman(yeah, OK you can do podcasts), but the internet has and continues to usher in a revolution. However, I think these changes are minor compared to the biotech/medical revolution that will take place; albeit alot further in the future than many believe. Eventually, organs will be grown in the lab and humans and machines will be integrated.

  11. Frankly,

    What else is there left to invent? I’m being serious. Think how easy it was to come up with stuff in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century.

  12. “However, I think these changes are minor compared to the biotech/medical revolution that will take place; albeit alot further in the future than many believe. Eventually, organs will be grown in the lab and humans and machines will be integrated.”

    If that’s allowed. A lot of people think that it shouldn’t be allowed. A lot more people think that it, and the primitive versions that lead to it, need to be tightly controlled.

  13. Well, I can’t say that I don’t have some doubts about designing our children – anyone that doesn’t hesitate at the thought of unintended consequences has the kind of faith (or pride) that the state planners of some empires of the twentieth century would recognize.

    And I always thought my brother’s Poplar Mechnics were hopelessly boring.

    Nonetheless, I’d like to point (again) to the Cato institute’s “25 Wonderful Trends of the 20th Century in which they point out that around 1900 there were 25,000 patents and in 1998 150,000. I realize patents are issued differently, but it hardly suggests a downward trend.

    Life expectancy went from 47 to 77; infant mortality from 100 per thousand children born to 7 per thousand. Such varied stats as “accidental deaths” (88 to 34 per 100,000) and air pollution of lead (135 particulates in 1977 to 4 in 1998). While we don’t realize who would have been killed in the last 25 years in car accidents but weren’t because of better roads & safer cars, they do walk beside us.

    And then the Green Revolution is pretty much a last third of the century phenomenon.

  14. What else is there left to invent?

    My car can’t fly, there aren’t any personal jet packs available in the stores, regular shuttle flights to space stations and Moonbase One have yet to be scheduled, I don’t have a phaser that I can set on “STUN”, and I can’t install a holodeck in my basement no matter how much I want to spend.

    (That last is pretty much a good thing. Considering that I could load up any hedonistic program I want, it would be doubtful that I’d leave the ‘deck as long as the food held out.)

    Along with a great many other things, I am a self defense instructor. Unrealistic space enthusiasts keep going on about these carbon nanotubes they want to use to build a space elevator. Couldn’t material that tough be used to weave a bullet proof T-shirt?

    So there is an invention that would be of great benefit to the world: bullet resistant underwear. Someone in the top secret Fruit of the Loom lab needs to get to work.


  15. I carried this discussion to a small party last night and it generated a surprising consensus: our technologies serve to insulate our bodies from adversities.

    I deduce that, if adversities drive innovation, then, once a society has sufficiently muffled them a relative slowdown must occur.

    Perhaps our biological innovator, evolution, will be slowed as well.

  16. Steve,

    I think that the formulation you propose is too limited. Yes, much of what we do is to increase our safety and security, but that is only the base of the structure.

    The true driver of innovation is imagination. Men and women who conceive of a new path, a new way of doing something, or a new something to do.

    Much is health and welfare, to be sure. But there are also more esoteric objectives—entertainment, exploration, knowledge, adventure, and wish fulfillment. These latter are the more truly human motives, pursued after the more fundamental have been satisfied, at least to some extent.

    We went to the moon, not because we needed to for our security or safety, but because we dreamed we could.

  17. Missig in the above discussion are metrics. How do we measure technological progress?

    I will have to check my notes from 18-20 months ago, but I recall three indicators. First from an article that appeared in US News & World Report on December 25, 2000, by Phillip J. Longman. Total factor productivity is in decline. Growth in patents are in decline. This is persistent and is a good measure of ability to produce consquential innovation.

    “Economists call it total-factor productivity. Between 1913 and 1972, it grew by an annual average of 1.08 percent. Then between 1972 and 1995, for reasons economists are still debating, the rate of improvement collapsed to less than one fiftieth that of the previous era.” This is now subject to searching debate – is the recent rebound real and prolonged?

    Another measure is more ineaxat and also subject to much debate: lifestyle impact. “Yet to date, the marginal gains computers have brought to communications are modest even compared with the improvements made by the telegraph. The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866 reduced the time required to send a message from New York to London from about a week to a few minutes. Notes economist Alan Blinder: ‘No modern IT innovation has, or I dare say will, come close to such a gain!”‘

    Second, as James LaFanu details in book The Rise and Decline of Modern, the early revolutionary promise of genetic engineering have proved wanting, acconting flr only marginal gains. Biology is much harder than was thought in the 70s and 80s – that’s what we learned in the 90s. Or actually soon thereafter. The human genome has been completed and there may ge real and important innovations to come. But early results can only be described as “disappointing.”

    Third, I recently Iooked at how long it takes a Nobel prize winning scinetific discovery to get to market and turn a profit. In the case I lloked at, it still took longer (24 years) than Nobel took to invent dynamite based on the invention of nitroglycerin (21).

    An update is even more pessimistic: “The New Scientist article by Robert Adler (no.2506 2 July 2005 pp.26-27), is about Jonathan Huebner (whose work is summarised in this article) argues that the rate of progress is not exponential after all, and that innovation is slowing and we will soon be in another dark age.

    “He forms his observations on the basis of both U.S. patents and world technological breakthroughs, per population. According to the resulting fuigures, that the rate of human technological innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. According to his findings (and yet unpublished paper) we are heading towards a new Dark Age, an ‘economic limit’ of very low innovation sometime around 2038.”

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