Skip to comments.The Myth of Technological Progress
Posted on 08/12/2010 3:05:50 PM PDT by B-Chan
Many of you will still be alive in 50 years. Its interesting to think about what life will be like in 50 years technologically and otherwise. Predictions are risky, especially when theyre 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.
Id go so far as to say that the main technological innovation since 1959 has been space flighta technology weve mostly abandoned, and its daughter technologymicroelectronics. Computer networks came a year or two after 1959 and didnt change very much, other than how we waste time in the office, and whom advertisers pay.
Other than that, mans 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 were 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 Murrays Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, though I warn you, if youre in a creative or technical profession Murrays widely ignored book is even more depressing than this essay. Murray didnt 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 dont), but you cant escape the conclusionthings 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 couldnt have done 30 or even 50 years ago? I dont 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 cant think of a single technology in the works today which will revolutionize life in the 21st century...
Given the lack of investment in technological advancement, particularly in the West, the rank stupdity in our polity and our public life (primarily through the propogandistic dumbing-down of our interactions and exchanges via the media) and our seeming inability to even engage in important infrastructure improvements and advancements (thank you to the zero-growth mania of the greens)...I would say that it is not at all out of place to think that we are now entering a new Dark Ages.
Obviously he's never hear of FR or online dating or...
They promised us jet packs and flying cars. Hmmmmpphh.
This is exactly the old patent office official’s quote in 1865 that EVERYTHING HAS BEEN INVENTED...
The biggest change I see since 1959 to today is that kids that do graduate from High School...............can’t read or write. What progress we have made. Most could’t design or even assemble a computer today, let alone use the keyboard.
I wonder what MiMi the Mechanix Illustrated girl looks like now
I think medical advancements are pretty good since 1959
To discount innovation with respect to invention is short sighted at best.
bump for later.
Is this guy drunk? The computer alone has gone through a dozen major technological jumps since 1959. Calculators today have more computing power than put a man on the moon. Heck the really kick butt calculators probably have more computing power than existed in 1959.
Beyond computers tons of other stuff has changed. International telephony actually works for everybody not just a few, and can be done from the palm of your hand in your back yard not physically connected to anything. Speaking of more computing power than existed in 1959, how about them smartphones. He’s just plane wrong about commercial jet flights being routine in 1959, commercial flight wasn’t routine for anybody and commercial jets were rarer still. Then there’s the revolution in cars, better fuel, better comfort, and now they can tell you where you are and how to get where you want to go. And as for televisions forget about it, the change from 13” black and white over the air to 52” HD satellite and cable and possibly even 3D ready is so dramatic they probably need a new name.
Then there’s the stuff he didn’t even bother to mention. How about lenses. Anybody whose been wearing glasses for the past 10 or 15 years knows some amazing changes have happened there. Every pair I get is lighter and more durable than the ones they replace even though the prescription is stronger. And how about the revolution in the storage and transfer of music. Heck just in the performance of music, one of the reason so many old farts keep touring is they love playing with the new technology.
So much for predicting the future. When you get right down to it, let's face it.....it's impossible.
I guess the central question, the central thesis, is that the degree of change in the last fifty years, as large as it seems to us in our lifetime, is - according to the author - a matter of whole lot of “refinement” based on earlier “groundbreaking” discoveries; whereas the previous fifty years was a period of a whole lot of brand new breakthroughs.
They may be right, but what about “medical science”. To me that area seems the reverse of Mr. Murray’s thesis; with the period of 1900 to 1950s being “refinements” of earlier discoveries but the 1950s to 2000 seeing some major breakthroughs. Am I wrong?
Right. And the computing/storage capability of today's laptops would have weighed about 10 million pounds and have been the size of a the pentagon. Cost? Probably about the same as obamacare.
I'll take the unimpressive tech of today and he can stick with the '59 version.
About a year ago, my 12 year old daughter and I were watching an episode of the Brady Bunch. I asked her what year she thought the episode was filmed in. She said 2000.
Yogi Berra couldn't have said it better.
There’s not a lot of stuff in a Brady Episode to pin the time frame. Sometimes you might see the trunk of their car in an outdoors scene, that would pin it to the 1970s. I don’t remember ever seeing a TV in it. If you got a good look at the kitchen and noticed the lack of microwave that might put it pre-1980. The hideous 70s clothes is really about it, and there was a 70s “style” rebirth in the early 2000s. So that’s not a bad guess on her part, especially considering that at age 12 she probably doesn’t have much knowledge of the differences in the world between Brady era and now.