Monday, July 13, 2009

Are We in the Middle of a Technological Revolution?

It is a common meme that we are in the midst of a technological revolution. When I made an off-hand remark in an earlier post that I did not think we were in such a state, Etienne disagreed. This post explains why it is inaccurate to state that we are in the middle of a technological revolution.

What do we mean by a technological revolution? The term is difficult to define. Here are four possible definitions: First, a technological revolution can be defined as a period during which new technologies result in rapid alterations to societal and cultural behavior. This is a vague concept but it has more precision than that of a generic technological revolution. We shall call this the social definition of a technological revolution. This definition has the advantage that it places little emphasis on when a given technology was actually invented and instead emphasizes the impact of technology.

Second, a technological revolution can be defined as the development and improvement of technologies at a pace more rapid than has been the historic norm. We shall call this definition the historical definition of a technological revolution.

Third, a technological revolution can be defined as the rapid development of new technologies faster than has been the historic norm. We shall call this the inventor's definition of a technological revolution. This inventor’s definition differs from the historical definition in that it focuses only on technologies which are new, not improvements upon existing technologies. Unfortunately, the distinction between significant improvement of an existing technology and fundamentally new technology is not that clear.

Fourth, a technological revolution can be defined as the accelerated construction of new technologies such that much of the population are unable to cope with the rapid changes in daily life. We shall call this the old-geezer definition of a technological revolution. Given that, whenever new technologies are developed older individuals have trouble adapting to them, the fourth definition seems to be less useful than the other definitions. We shall therefore focus on the first three definitions.

We are arguably in the middle of a technological revolution by the social definition, but the argument is not as strong as one might think at first glance. When most people point to a technology today which has altered social behavior, they point to the internet. The internet has allowed people to communicate conveniently when they are continents apart. It has also produced a series of media where the barrier to entry for the common citizen is almost non-existent. This has led to the free flow of all sorts of content, whether blogs, videos or collaborative projects such as Wikipedia.

TIME Magazine went so far as to declare the Time Man of The Year last year to be "You." However, this should raise alarm bells. Any bandwagon on which TIME has jumped is almost certainly overhyped. This is no exception.

The actual social impact of the internet has been small. Even the major social-networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook have relatively few people on them. Myspace has about 100 million registered accounts, but many are simple spam or are bands and small corporations using Myspace as webhosts. This is not fundamentally different from what people were doing fifteen or twenty years ago with personal webpages on sites like geocities. The total number is simply larger.

The barrier to entry to the internet may be small, but the barrier to being substantially noticed on the internet is higher, arguable as high as it was in the age of conventional publication. Moreover, much of the content (such as silly videos on Youtube) is content that would have likely been created without the internet and the only change is that the content is publically available.

Thus, the argument that we are in the midst of a technological revolution is weak under the social definition of such a revolution.

What about by the historical definition? Here again the argument for a contemporary technological revolution is weak. Moore's Law (that computer power doubles approximately every 2 years ) is valid , but it has been valid for almost sixty years. Similar observations apply to other technologies.

Most of the time when people speak of a current technological revolution they speak of technologies related to computers. However, for this particular definition, others might point to advances in the biological sciences. However, here also they would be wrong to assert that something unique is occurring now. We have in the last few years made major strides in our understanding of genetics and related areas of biology. PCR in particular has opened new frontiers. Yet even here, there are clear limits to what has been accomplished. Our improved understanding of genetics has produced not much in the way of direct medical breakthroughs but, rather, has increased our understanding of how very complicated and non-Mendelian many diseases are (see for example this discussion by Carl Zimmer). Meanwhile, genetic tests for some simple Mendelian diseases such as Tay-Sachs have existed for about forty years. Thus, the pace we are advancing in biology is not so rapid as to justify the label “revolutionary”.

What about the inventor's definition? This is by far the one with the clearest answer. And the answer is “no”. All of the major modern technologies are old. The electronic computer itself is almost 70 years old. The internet (even if one doesn't count ARPAnet but rather the internet as a large scale network) is 30 years old. The World Wide Web is 20 years old. The cellphone is about 30 years old. The primary improvements in the contemporary world have made existing technologies faster, smaller and cheaper. But little has changed with the underlying technologies.

By the most reasonable definitions of a technological revolution, we are not living in one today. Technologies continue to improve at a rapid, but not revolutionary, pace.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor and More Gratuitous Promotion of Family Members

My father has a piece up at the Oxford University Press blog arguing for the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor. He was earlier in favor of the confirmation of Samuel Alito. He argues that the most important condition is once again satisfied: Sotomayor is a qualified legal professional.

I'm not sure I agree with his argument. Frankly. there seem to be many qualified candidates who have a great deal of experience. I personally am also deeply concerned about Sotomayor's attitude towards both free speech and civil liberties issues ( Doninger v. Niehoff being the most serious example). I worry that with her on the Court many close decisions that would otherwise support civil liberties will otherwise go in the other direction.

In any event, the piece is worth reading and raises a number of interesting points. Go read it.