Monday, September 7, 2009

The Myth of Technological Progress

Bullshit machine

Avatar for {name}Many of you will still be alive in 50 years. It's interesting to think about what life will be like in 50 years technologically and otherwise. Predictions are risky, especially when they're about the future, but I believe we can make some pretty good guesses. To predict a predictable future, you need to look at the past. What was technological life like 50 years ago? 50 years ago was 1959. 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.

Now, if we're sitting in unfashionable 1959 and doing this same comparison, things are a good deal different.

The rate of change between 1959 and 1909 is nothing short of spectacular. In that 50 years, humanity invented jet aircraft, supersonic flight, fuel-injected internal-combustion engines, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, space flight, gas warfare, nuclear power, the tank, antibiotics, the polio vaccine, radio; and these are just a few items off the top of my head. You might try to assert that this was a particularly good era for technological progress, but the era between 1859 and 1909 was a similar explosion in creativity and progress, as was the 50 years before that, at the dawn of the Industrial revolution. You can read all about it in Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, though I warn you, if you're in a creative or technical profession Murray's widely ignored book is even more depressing than this essay. Murray didn't restrict his attentions to technological progress: across the entire panoply of human endeavor (art, science, literature, philosophy, Mathematics) the indications are grim. You may disagree with the statistical technique he used (I don't), but you can't escape the conclusion—things are slowing down. 

Certainly, people can be forgiven for thinking we live in a time of great progress, since semiconductor lithography has improved over the years, giving us faster and more portable computers. But can we really do anything with computers now that we couldn't have done 30 or even 50 years ago? I don't think life is much different because of ubiquitous computers. Possibly more efficient and convenient, but not radically different, much like things got after the invention of computers in the '40s. Now we just waste time in the office in different ways.

Remember the kind of "artificial intelligence" which was supposed to give us artificial brains we could talk to by now? The only parts of which work look suspiciously like signal processing ideas from, well, the 1950s. The rest of it appears to have degenerated into a sort of secular religion for nerds.

Looking forward, I can't think of a single technology in the works today which will revolutionize life in the 21st century. In the 1930s, there were dozens of obvious ones; you could read about them in magazines and science fiction. Now ... I don't know ... biotech. Maybe. Making insulin in toilet water is a neat trick, but all that really does is allow fat people to eat more sugar without slaughtering horses and pigs. I suppose some of the genetically engineered crops are impressive, though the birds-and-bunnies people tell me they are a bad idea. Some wise acre is likely to pipe up and sing the glories of "Nanotech," a "subject" which was "invented" in K. Eric Drexler's Ph.D. thesis in 1989. In the 20 years since he penned his fanciful little story, we have yet to see a single example of the wondrous miniature perpetual motion machines Drexler has been promising us "real soon now." I wonder what his timeline for delivery of this "technology" will be?

Presumably some time well after his retirement. I'll go out on a limb: since we don't even have computers that can program themselves in any useful fashion, the probability of anyone inventing self replicating miniature robots to give us magical powers (or any kind of powers) by 2059 is approximately zero. The very idea that we're banking on a glorious future ... powered by magical robotic germs seems to me a titanic failure in human imagination. Once upon a time, we dreamed about giant stately space dirigibles to bring us to strange new worlds. Drexler dreams about inventing mechanical bacteria.

Need more evidence? Let's look at aerospace. The SR-71 was designed in 1959. It took about two years to get the thing deployed, and it remains a faster jet than the F-22, which cost a lot more and took a lot longer to develope—first design was in 1986, first deployment in 1997. Sure, these aircraft aren't made to do the same thing, but there is little apparent progress here: both represent the best we've got of respective eras.

This is despite the fact that the SR-71 was mostly designed with a paper and slide rule, and the F-22 with the most modern CAD design technology. Perhaps you consider this a bad comparison? OK, let's consider the lowly passenger jet. The 747, a revolutionary passenger jet, was a concept in 1966. It was flying in 1968. The 787, which is not a revolutionary passenger jet, but one designed to be merely cheaper to operate, has been "in development" since 2004. It's now 2009, and still no 787s.

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