In which I remain cynically skeptical of the science fetishists, Star Trek daydreamers, and other sciento-triumphalists who claim that Techno-Utopia is coming our way, any old time now.
I call bullshit.
In fact, let us take what could broadly be called digitalization – the entirety of computers, the internet, cell phones, consumer electronics; basically, anything you could reasonably expect to find inside a Best Buy – and for a moment call it an outlier and set it aside.
So other than that, just how much technological progress have we really made in the past 50 years? I’m talking mainly about things that directly affect people’s lives, not abstract “We have a much better understanding of subatomic particles” sorts of things.
For example: A modern 787 is a fine aircraft indeed, and much more refined than the 707 one might have flown in in 1962. But the advances are mostly just that – refinements. The 787 is more efficient, more aerodynamic, quieter, and easier to maintain. But it doesn’t fly significantly higher than the 707, or significantly faster. It’s not significantly more comfortable or really significantly safer, and, at that, most of the safety improvements come from better crew training. Most passengers even today flying from, say, New York to Paris, really wouldn’t notice at all if you swapped out a 707 for their 787, except for wondering where the in-flight entertainment system went.
The 707 went into airline service in 1957. Think of the difference between it and airplanes 50 years before, in 1907. And then 50 years hence, in 2007.
Drones make big news, but have been practical since the late 50s. The new ones are a lot better, but much of the improvement has been made possibly by Digital Revolution tech.
Automobiles are a similar story. The last very major interface change was automatic transmission, which appeared around the same time the 707 did. Yes, I know – Google’s self-driving car. But that’s the fruits of digitalization – thus why it’s Google, an internet company, that’s at the forefront of it. Other than that? Refinements, yes – modern cars are safer, more efficient, more reliable, and last longer than those of 1962. But they perform their core functions basically no better, and don’t do a lot more than the cars of 50 years ago did. A friend still owns the Ford Falcon he bought in 1961, which still runs, and sometimes when we go off on a day’s adventuring we take the Falcon. Our day doesn’t go any differently – better or worse either way – than if we took his 2007 Corolla.
Trains? High-speed rail has been around quite a while now. The first Shinkansen opened up just in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Navigation? GPS, but the basic idea was developed with LORAN – GPS satellites are basically just LORAN stations in orbit – which was operational in the 60s (an old acquaintance recalls dropping bombs on North Vietnam through an overcast layer based on LORAN signals).
Non-digital household stuff? I think the last major advance was probably the microwave oven, which appeared around 40 years ago, or maybe the air conditioner, that would have appeared just a bit earlier. Other than that, think: If you cleared all the Digital Revolution stuff out of your house, how would it really look much significantly different from one you might see in 1962?
Medicine? We have better treatments, sure, and the likes of MRI machines are wonders (though arguably also digital) – but when was the last time we cured a really major disease? I mean a big one, and totally cured it? Maybe smallpox, around 40 years ago? Cancer recovery rates have held more or less steady since the early 70s. Again, a little more progress on some forms. I’m not arguing that there haven’t been advancements, but as with the other stuff, it’s been slow, steady refinements instead of huge leaps.
Materials science? Again, I’m not saying there haven’t been advancements. But the last big one was carbon fiber, which has been around for maybe 30 years, and the last civilization-transforming one was plastics, around 50 years ago.
Architecture? No mile-high skyscrapers yet. Burj Khalifa is largely a publicity stunt – the top floors of the spire count in its height, but are too small to inhabit. Other than that, buildings are not much taller than the generation of skyscrapers we built 40 years ago – the likes of the WTC and the Sears Tower.
Energy? Fusion still doesn’t work. Solar and high-tech alternatives still aren’t efficient enough. Wind is as old as mankind, as is hydroelectric. Nuclear is more refined, but the basic idea is late-40s tech. Other than that, we’re still taking flammable stuff we dig out of the ground and shoving it into furnaces to generate power.
Weapons? No laser guns yet. Still slugthrowers and grenades, mostly. The RPG is 50 year old tech. Air and armor have been around since WWI. Smart bombs date to the tail end of Vietnam, after the Air Force demanded better bombs in the wake of the losses they took trying to drop the Dragon’s Jaw Bridge. An “IED” is just an old school boobytrap hooked up to a cell phone. Other than that, refinements.
Spaceflight? We’ve arguably gone backwards. The new Mars rovers are nice, but we’ve been sending robots to Mars since 1976. Yes, the new one is better – it will last longer, gather more data, send back better pictures, etc. But the last man to walk on another planet – which was just our own moon – came back 40 years ago. We don’t even have our Shuttle anymore.
If you looked at the difference between the years 1900 and 1960, there was a huge amount of change in how people lived their daily lives that was due to technological advancement in areas like the ones I talked about above. But if you set aside what has admittedly been a huge amount of advancement in one single area – digitalization – the difference due to technology between how we live our daily lives now and how people 40 or 50 years ago lived their daily lives is fairly minimal. In other areas there have been advancements, yes, but again, mostly just refinements of things that worked, and actually already worked pretty well, back then.
The point of all this is, a lot of people think that there will be just as much technological advancement in the next 100 years as there was in the last 100 years. I disagree. I think that if we look at the tremendous spurt of technological advancement in the 100 years, that that pace of change can’t and won’t continue. It’s going to plateau out at some point. And, in fact, if you put aside advancement in one single area as an outlier, it basically already has.
Once a technology reaches an optimal form further improvements are often not cost effective. One of the best handguns, the old semi-automatic 45, was designed over a hundred years ago and is ever bit as effective today as it was then. Your observations about planes, energy, trains, and so on are pretty much on the mark. I’d class all of them as mature technologies. Now let’s consider some entirely new developments that are not entirely digital. How about mapping individual genomes for less than 10,000 dollars. This was simply impossible just twenty years ago. At current rates of improvement it will be standard medical test in a few years. How about the synthesis of completely artificial genes. In less than twenty years there will be synthetic organisms, entirely new species, on this planet. Your dismissal of science is way premature. The last fifty years have been extraordinarily productive. We’ve affirmed the standard model, determined the age of universe, inferred the existence of things we know very little about like dark matter. Proved some long standing mathematical theorems like Fermat’s last theorem and the four color map theorem. As our ability to monitor the activity of interconnections within brains improves the day will come when finally understand intelligence at a deep and actionable level. Unlike Kurzweil I do not expect a singularity in this century but it’s virtually certain, if we don’t annihilate ourselves, in a thousand years and a thousand years is utterly insignificant on geologic or cosmic timescales.
“Virtually certain”? I’m sure I disagree with you here. I find it very difficult to believe that “current rates of improvement” are certain, or even likely, to continue as they are. The pace of technological progress in the last 200 years or so has been a tremendous anomaly, and not the norm. I can see very little reason to believe that it will keep up indefinitely, and much of the point of the post was to show that it is in fact, one outlier aside, visibly slowing down.
We all have things that we do, and we must, have faith in. I’m afraid that my faith in science and technology just isn’t as strong as yours.
That said, thank you and congratulations! You’re my first commenter ever, and very welcome.