Deccelerating change?

Everyone knows the first words spoken by a man on the moon, but what were the last words? This isn’t just a good pub quiz question, it’s also an affront to the notion that technological progress moves inexorably forward. To critics of the idea that technology is relentlessly accelerating, the fact that space travel now constitutes a technology that the world has essentially relinquished is a prime argument against the idea of inevitable technological progress. The latest of such critics is David Edgerton, whose book The Shock of the Old is now out in paperback.

Edgerton’s book has many good arguments, and serves as a useful corrective to the technological determinism that characterises quite a lot of discussion about technology. His aim is to give a history of innovation which de-emphasises the importance of invention, and to this end he helpfully draws attention to the importance of those innovations which occur during the use and adaptation of technologies, often quite old ones. One very important thing this emphasis on innovation in use does is bring into focus neglected innovations of the developing world, like the auto-rickshaw of India and Bangladesh and the long-tailed boat of Thailand. This said, I couldn’t help finding the book frequently rather annoying. Its standard rhetorical starting point is to present, generally without any reference, a “standard view” of the history of technology that wouldn’t be shared by anyone who knows anything about the subject: a series of straw men, in other words. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of naive views about technology in wide circulation, but to suggest, for example, that it is the “conventional story” that the atomic bomb was the product of academic science, rather than the gigantic military-industrial engineering activity of the Manhatten Project, seems particularly far-fetched.

The style of the book is essentially polemic and anecdotal, the statistics that buttress the argument tending to be of the factoid kind (such as the striking assertion that the UK is home to 3.8 million unused fondue sets). In this and many other respects I found it a much less satisfying book than Vaclav Smil’s excellent 2-volume history of modern technology, Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences and Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. These books reach similar conclusions, though Smil’s arguments are supported by substantially more data and carry a greater impact for being less self-consciously contrarian.

Smil’s view – and I suspect that Edgerton would share it, though I don’t think he states it so explicitly – is that the period of history in which there was the greatest leap forward in technology wasn’t present times, but the thirty or forty years of the late 19th and early 20th century that saw the invention of the telephone, the automobile, the aeroplane, electricity, mass production, and most important of all, the Haber-Bosch process. What then of that symbol of what many people think of as the current period of accelerating change – Moore’s law? Moore’s law is an observation about exponential growth of computer power with time, and one should start with an obvious point about exponential growth – it doesn’t come from accelerating change, but constant fractional change. If you are able to improve a process by x% a year, you get exponential growth. Moore’s law simply tells us that the semiconductor industry has been immensely successful at implementing incremental improvements to their technology, albeit at a rapid rate. Stated this way, Moore’s law doesn’t seem so out of place in Edgerton’s narrative of technology as being dominated, not by dramatic new inventions, but by many continuous small improvements in technologies old and new. This story, though, also makes clear how difficult it is to predict, before several generations of this kind of incremental improvement, which technologies are destined to have a major and lasting impact and which ones will peter out and disappoint their proponents. For me, therefore, the lesson to take away is not that new developments in science and technology might not have major and lasting impacts on society, it is simply that some humility is needed when one tries to identify in advance what will have lasting impact and what those impacts will end up being.

On December 17th, 1972, Eugene A. Cernan said the last words by a man on the moon: “OK Jack, let’s get this mutha outta here.”

8 thoughts on “Deccelerating change?”

  1. No, that’s not something I’d want to bet against! My daughter recently came home from school saying they were doing the planets, so I dug out to read with her a picture book from my own youth – “Challenge of the stars”, 1972 vintage, with a preface from Arthur C. Clarke and confident time lines of man on Mars around 1990; it was rather a poignant read. So now it’s clear that the main driving force for men going to the Moon last time was to establish which superpower was top dog, I wouldn’t rule out the same scenario playing out again to culminate in the next lunar words being in Mandarin.

  2. In a previous discussion on this site, I had mentioned the need to get a lot of inexpensive lab on a chip equipment out to have widespread monitoring of disease and biomarkers.

    Now the University of Alberta has made genetic lab on a chip systems for less than $100. They submitted a paper to the Royal Society of chemistry and the price was $1000 and they got it cheaper down to tens of dollars and from shoe box size to a USB stick size. Test results in minutes.

    With the rejection suppression gel, rice grain size or larger computers could be placed into the body which would be an earlier cruder but possibly very functional version of what nanomedicine could accomplish.

    Carbon nanotube based drugs could be 5000 times more effective in treating effects of acute radiation

    Nanochip (Intel backed) making 100 gigabyte chips for 2010 (competing against better flash and nanoionic devices Device scales to terabytes.

    All sorts of advances with printable electronics

    On the brink of synthetic life with 500,000+ bp in one synthetic DNA sequence

    All molecular DNA nanotechnology- molecules used to fabricate molecules Puts some pressure on the UK Ideas factory project to hits its delivery date.

    Lunar landing was politically motivated and funded. It was not designed to deliver cheaper and open access to space. Thus almost all of NASA efforts have not led to a current situation where the masses can go to space. That is what is different with some of the recent work (like spaceshiptwo and SpaceX) where costs are being brought down. Spaceshipfour should be able to go to orbit. Increasing safety and lowering costs are the key. All the expensive stunts and projects that do not do that are putting some science or political project before the work of making safe cheap, safe and accessible. Three-12 guys to Mars for X hundreds of billion -a dead end stunt. 12 guys to moon – dead end stunt. Expensive plans with the wrong goals do not build the real future. Government and businesses waste money and effort in space, technology and everywhere else. It is the exception when something is done efficiently and achieving the right purpose. When they don’t spend the tens of billions with the title of highways and road and bridges but on some other government project or there are cost overruns do we say – the vision of quality and affordable roads and bridges and transit systems was an ill conceived and unrealistic vision, it was the fault of the dreamers who said that we could achieve those things. When we should be saying – mother F***, the politicians and special interests diverted our money and screwed it up. They had bad plans and they pissed the money away instead of delivering what we needed (in the case of space – cheap, affordable and safe access to space. I don’t have highwaynauts driving billion dollar vehicles cross country, the government makes the interstate and trains and enables the airlines and private businesses get competing as soon as possible to make it all cheaper and then millions and billions of people use the system and infrastructure).

    Was a few hundreds of billions of dollars enough to deliver an opening of space ? Yes.

    Instead of a space station (ISS) we should have fuel depots to lower costs.

    Creative use of old systems and technology and new technology.

    Bi-planes would not have made a successful international or domestic commercial airline service.

    Laser array launch
    Mirror lasers
    better ion drives
    Nuclear systems – get them launched conventional and build them on the moon
    Inflatable and magnetically assembled structures
    advanced fission and fusion research
    New materials
    Systems for using the resources of space
    Use more prizes (pay for winners instead of giving all the money up front)

    If we are getting decelerating change it is because we are being overly accepting of bad plans, waste and screw ups

  3. I’m not sure if an undifferentiated list of neat things really contributes very much to the argument either way. And while it’s always tempting to blame politics and “the system” for screwing things up, one has to remember that it was pretty much the same “system” (the US military-industrial complex, if one can put it that way) that delivered the microprocessor.

  4. Richard,
    First, I would be willing to bet that most people don’t know the first words spoken by a man on the moon. Most informed people would say “Thats one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” When it actually was “The eagle has landed.”

    Second, and more the general point of the post, I think that you are conflating two different things. The first question should be “Is the rate of increase in our technological capabilities increasing, staying the same or decreasing?” The second question should be “Is the degree of change in people’s daily life greater now than 100 years ago?”

    For western countries the answer to the second question (social change) is probably no, but for the world as a whole the answer is probably yes. (The central change is from a rural agricultural system to an urban industrial system.)

    Now the first question (technological capabilities) I am not sure of the answer. For some areas like biology/ biochemistry the rate of change in capabilities is increasing, for printing technology the rate of change is probably less than 50 years ago.

  5. The space station and the space shuttle are clearly $100+ billion screw ups. I am not saying it was the system, but that those key projects that consumed most of the money spent on space were ill conceived failures.

    Way over budget, and goals not achieved for the space shuttle and yet it was still carried on for over a decade after it became clear it was failed overpriced death trap

    Saying that one good program means we cannot criticize another program makes no sense. Because we have one good highway/bridge/tunnel project means we cannot criticize the over budget Big Dig (boston project)?

    The main part of your article seems to be that the fact that we have had little progress since the last lunar landing is indicative of decelerating change. I feel it shows an area stalled out by bad plans and screwed up projects.

    I feel that we are on the point of reaping the fruit of decades of technological progress, but the right choices still need to be made. I am not saying good things are inevitable. I am saying that good things are possible if we make the right choices and don’t screw things up. The capacity to screw up is near infinite. Humanity has gotten less from the nuclear fission age than it could have because of bad choices. (not developing nuclear thermal propulsion, not developing external pulsed propulsion, not developing molten salt reactors for power etc….)

    Day to day impactful shifts (like the car, phone, etc… of the 19th and early 20 th century) come from a critical mass of innovations combined with the right choices and people to develop them.

    The shifts can be clearly measured in the shift to a higher magnitude of growth rate (Hanson)

    Mode Doubling Date Began Doubles Doubles
    Grows Time (DT) To Dominate of DT of WP
    ———- ——— ———– —— ——-
    Brain size 34M yrs 550M B.C. ? “~16”
    Hunters 230K yrs 2000K B.C. 7.2 8.7
    Farmers 860 yrs 4700 B.C. 8.1 7.5
    ?? 58 yrs 1730 3.9 3.2
    Industry 15 yrs 1903 1.9 >6.3

    Satisfaction with 3% economic growth has been an issue. Growth could be faster if people were not satisfied with the level of competence and planning that exists.

    Not just the example of China catching up at 10-12% growth rates but Ireland continuing to progress at 6% growth after catching up at 8%.

    Many developed cities have consistently shown the ability to have strong economic growth (5+%) and large companies ($200 billion+) have shown the ability to have growth consistently beyond GDP growth (GE). By being better at raising all cities and companies to a higher standard at or near the best then 8-10 year national economic doubling times are possible even now.

    For the future, it is picking and pushing the right technology and processes. What high growth and superior processes can be leveraged to raise productivity at 10-20+% per year across wide swaths of the economy. What planning needs to be done to eliminate the bottlenecks when we go that level of growth ?

    But some will say. Hey growth is not a good thing. sustainable. Small. Blah blah blah. If enough people have that type of thinking than you will have more and more dead growth parts of the economy. Pieces of gangrene in the economic body that slow the overall growth. Then some of the same people who are making those parts of the economy and civiliization slow growth, no growth or shrinking will say “hey look change is decelerating”.

    Yes, because too many are making the wrong choices not because acceleration is not and should not be possible.

    printable electronics is something that could greatly increase productivity. by making printable electronics as close as possible to lithography performance or better then we could have a shift from multi-billion chip plants to multi-million printable electronics with multiples of the production. This could feed into the rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing and nacscent fabber industries. If the look can be closed on printable electronics and rapid fab/fabber where one can build the other then it would kick economic growth up to a higher level.

    Eventually the pursuit of profit could cause the gaps in the critical process mass to be filled to enable higher growth but would happen sooner with proper active planning.

    the same thing for kicking DNA nanotechnology up to hundreds of trillions of DNA pieces and nanoparticles.

    Believing that these things are possible and then listing out all the pieces that are needed and then making it happen. Not inevitable but not impossible.

  6. Btw: as can be shown by the economic growth rates in the Hanson chart. the rate of economic change has not been decreasing. It is still about 2-4%. What that period around 1903 was is when there was a shift from about 0.5-1% growth to 2-4%.

    Worldwide growth has been at 4-5%.

    It is more rare to kick up productivity permanently to a higher level.

    So around 1903 was a change in the rate of change.

    I agree it was special. Similar to the previous historic shifts.

    We are due for another shift and I believe I can see the signs of the changes to take things to another level of constant higher productivity shifts.

    Certain industries have higher average productivity growth. IT, biotech etc… If industries are able to leverage the higher rate of information change then they can shift to higher growth.

    Individual by individual, Project by project, company by company, country by country, it is possible to make the shifts to accomodate inflation free higher growth. But it is not inevitable, the right choices have to be made. Although after a tipping point laggards get more easily carried along in the shift.

    However, plenty missed the last shift. We call those countries third world or undeveloped. 100 years of 1-2% lower growth is the gap now between those countries and the developed world.

  7. Brian, I think where we can agree is that technological progress is not inevitable, and that good choices need to be made. I also agree that printed electronics and DNA nanotechnology are worth pursuing, we’ll see how they pan out and what impact they have.

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