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.


Lautreamont said...

I 100% agree Josh, I have often thought of this myself and have come to the exact same conclusion.

Anonymous said...

So, no singularity tomorrow?

Joshua said...

An earlier draft dealt with the singularity issue explicitly but I thought it was getting too long. The problem with the singularity idea is even more fundamental. Even if one thinks we are in a technological revolution we shouldn't expect one.

Essentially, most singularity predictions rely on the assumption that research tomorrow will be just as easy as research today. But if we work at history that hasn't been the case. In 1800 we had only a few hundred people doing full time scientific research. That number increased close to exponentially over the next two hundred years. Moreover, the technologies they had to aid them and the ability to rapidly communicate and disseminate new ideas also increased. But the technological rate of increase didn't go up at nearly a drastic level (even if you think we are in a technological revolution, the rate is far less than what one would extrapolate from the numbers around 1800). The problem is that even as we get more researchers the problems get much harder. If that trend continues, then even if we do get far better research abilities (due to smart AIs, genetic engineering of smart people or whatever your personality technological goal is) we can expect that the difficulty at doing further research will likewise increase at a roughly corresponding rate.

Shalmo said...

The use of paper and pen are slowly disappearing in university for me. In high school everyone used to notes using pen and paper. Now almost a quarter of my classes have people using laptops to take notes. All assignments and essays are made mandatorily due in typed/print form. I wonder if just like Star Trek we are soon gonna be walking with those digital boards rather than pen and paper.
So much of my political and religious reading is now done on the internet. I can't remember the last time I read a physical book.


PS: I'm not a fan of where this stuff is headed.

Shalmo said...

Btw war has always been a major contributor to progress. Both world wars contributed immensely to technological progress.

I wonder then how far we will get once world war 3 starts (which will be soon and in our lifetimes)

battle royal:
Iran, Russia, China vs UK, USA, Israel

I wonder what we'll get out of it. Though arguably this world war will be the most devastating out of all the others.

Khagan Din said...

I think the most plausible sense in which we could be said to be in the midst of a technological revolution is one not discussed here, to wit: the majority of people in industrialized countries now spend a majority of their time interacting with or through technologies that (for them) are sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic.

The average American probably would not be able to build an analog video recorder from scratch, but she has some structural grasp of what principles and components the camcorder relies on, and feels (rightly or wrongly) that she could *learn* to build one by making such a feat her hobby for the year.

Inserting a VHS tape into a VCR is even more straightforward; it seems fairly clear that the images show up on your TV screen because they're etched onto the tape thingie that's being run from one spool of the cassette to the other past the watchful "eye" of the VCR.

By contrast, sharing a YouTube video on Facebook invokes so many unseen layers of technology that we lose the ability to kid ourselves. Nobody but a genius or a techie would even toy with the idea of replicating a computer, the Internet, a social networking site, and a set of Web-borne middleware programs just to share a video with a friend.

It may be the case that, for a scientist or an engineer, little has changed about our technology over the last 30 years except its steady miniaturization and cheapification. But for a consumer, the fact that electronics are now small and cheap means that they show up everywhere. If you withdraw money, buy a hamburger, rent a car, get directions, show your ticket to the usher, silence your blackberry, and listen to a concert, then you just interacted with a computer seven times.

I don't much care whether that bothers geezers, because, as Josh said, everything new bothers geezers. But it tends to make an impression on everyone who remembers a different way of walking through cities, and not just old folks. We've passed a tipping point in people's perceptions of their daily routines, and people understandably find it strange and interesting that, whereas before we used to NOT interact with magically complex devices all day long, now we DO interact with magically complex devices all day long.

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Technology should not be treated as a threat instead, it should be regarded as an opportunity where we can gain a lot of advantages from.