Friday, September 04, 2009

Is technological progress slowing?

We have seen exponential progress in electronic, communication and storage technology during the last 60 years. As a result, computers and networks are now used by billions of people for a great number of applications. This "information revolution" has had an impact on our individual lives, organizations and society.

No doubt, computers and the Internet are a big deal, but Alfred Normann argues that they have not changed our lives as much as earlier inventions -- that he has not seen as much technological innovation as his parents and grandparents did. As we see in his illustration, shown below, a host of important inventions occurred during the 50 years between the Civil War and World War I and many others occurred during his grandmother's life. He feels that technological progress measured in terms of impact on our lives has slowed, not accelerated.

Ray kurzweil would disagree with Normann. He argues that accelerating improvement in information technology facilitates an accelerating accumulation of knowledge, which is leading rapidly toward an understanding of our own biology and intelligence. Kurzweil foresees radical medical breakthroughs, leading to the possibility of immortality, and machines that surpass human intelligence and continue to improve without us.

How does the impact of the Internet on individuals, organizations and society compare to the impact of inventions like the automobile, radio, television, antibiotics, electric lights, telephones, and nuclear weapons?

Will today's exploding knowledge of genetics and biology lead to a longer life for you and your children? Can you think of examples of things computers do today that would have been considered "intelligent" 50 years ago?


  1. It seems that technology advances the most for military purposes and especially when we are at war. Look at the world war two inventions: the rocket, jet engine, computer, steroids. These are all inventions during the world war 2 era that we have not surpassed. We went to the moon in the 1950's. In conclusion if we were still advancing at the same rate we were back then, then we would be time traveling, have all sicknesses cured, immorrality, and star traveling. The fact that we are still using the carbon-combustion engine is very disappointing.

  2. Chris Norris5:33 PM

    I think there are a number of factors you have to take in consideration. First is the initial state of technology in the world. When technology is at the level of using candles or oil lamps for lighting, a washboard to do laundry, or horse and buggy to get around, improvements in technology will have a bigger impact as they are more directly applied to society. Secondly, coming from a relatively simplistic society, those changes were less complex. As technology progresses, the environment it impacts becomes more complex and differentiated. As the environment becomes more complex and differentiated, it also becomes more dfficult to impact as a whole. This is similar to the internet, in that the likelyhood of shutting down the whole system is highly unlikely if not impossible. So how do we measure progress? By the number of inventions, the impact on the world as a whole, or the importance in a particular area.

    There have been numerous advances in a variety of areas, but the individual impact of any of them might not felt by everyone. The Hubble telescope probably hasn’t impacted the average person in a way they know or understand. Yet the information we have gained from it has probably validated or decimated scientific theories that will take us far beyond what we knew by the end of the first World War. What about the impact of the computer? Or the personal computer? That one advancement has probably had as significant impact as the light bulb, maybe more. Again, how do we measure it?

    It seems only natural that technological progess would ebb and flow like the tide. In some ways it seems as if it has, when we look at the illustration. However, I think the way in which it is measured is just as important as the progress itself.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.