Is progress in technology winding down?


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Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.


Why Is Peter Thiel Pessimistic About Technological Innovation? by Dan Wang of the University of Rochester.  (Via Naked Capitalism).   Lots of links to information backing up the argument of diminishing returns from new technology.

Singular Simplicity by Alfred Nordmann for IEEE Spectrum (2008)

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit by David Graeber for The Baffler.  [Added 9/20/14]

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One Response to “Is progress in technology winding down?”

  1. Perette Barella Says:

    I think you are correct that we have attained the “low hanging fruit”, however:

    Perhaps it’s a matter of semantics, but since we’ve got the low-hanging fruit, the higher-up fruit needs more technology to reach it. In your oil-rig example, there’s a heck of a lot of technology in exploiting the remaining oil, although the social impact is minimal because it’s just letting us continue the status quo.

    There have been advances in the efficient use of energy, too. A car engine, an incandescent light bulb, and home appliances like furnaces and washing machines are becoming more complex to gain efficiency through technology. And more are coming: for example, one day we may have home fuel cells that generate electricity from natural gas and yield “free” hot water or house heat—but that change depends on technology.

    I do agree it feels like upcoming advances are less likely to be as revolutionary in terms of culture/social change, but I’m skeptical of myself because the assumption that we’re nearing the end of discover has proved wrong so many times before, always due to lack of imagination. And I refute that recent technologies aren’t so dramatic; the internet has influenced our social behaviors, our expectations of timely response and even the way our brains are wired. Mobile technology is continuing that change. Technology is proliferating information in a way never before seen, admittedly with plenty of disinformation but knowledge is available for anyone that wants to search for it. Whether the ’net runs out of utility because of marketering, trivia, disinformation and our laziness/preference for supporting ideas rather than dissent, remains to be seen.

    Technology is running into limits though: as we gain understanding of the “big picture”, we become limited by contradictions we encounter. Want to get more out of a tank of gas? I understand it’s easy if we were willing to compromise some of the emissions controls—but if we want clean air and to reduce asthma, we’re where we are now. I suspect *that* is the bigger part of the equation; although we will continue to gain technology, as time goes by we will find ourselves restricting various uses because of the impacts and compromises therein. That will require finding new alternatives, which will once again require new technology.


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