Is technology slowing down?

Uncertain Principles has a great post in response to Political Animal post responding to another Uncertain Principles post about the pace of technological change. Basically, Political Animal is arguing that technological innovation is already beginning to slow down, and cites as evidence the major inventions of the past 125 years. In the past 50 years, all we’ve had are computers, space flight, and biotech. In the preceding 75 years, there have been cars, airplanes, telephones, electrification, penicillin, nuclear weapons, radio, and TV.

Uncertain Principles replies that what matters is not “solutions,” but “problems.” The first airplanes were far from practical; it took about ten years for them to get really useful. Radio took perhaps 25 years — when the power of broadcast radio began to be widespread. On the other hand, nuclear weapons were used almost immediately after they were invented. Arguably, telephones didn’t really hit their stride until the invention of the cell phone about 100 years later. So though the inventions were made at particular points in history, their applications were spread out over much longer periods.

In fact, Political Animal was fudging his lists. The telephone was invented more than 125 years ago, remember? It was demonstrated at the United States Centennial in 1876. You could make the same case for automobiles, which had been around in some form since the 18th century. Yes, Henry Ford, yadda yadda, but the fact remains that motorized transportation on roads already existed — it’s the application of that invention that occurred in the last 125 years. Sounds like another vote for Uncertain Principles.

So if it’s the application, not the invention that really matters, then what of the pace of applications? One thing that computers have done is to make applications trivially easy. Isn’t that, after all, what we call computer programs: applications? Applications are so easy with computers that many of them are free: Internet Explorer and its open-source competitors, Open Office, all the media players and IM apps. It’s like getting a newspaper subscription, a telephone, and a TV, all for the price of a computer.

In fact, the leading computer application company, Microsoft, now spends most of its time figuring out how to charge people for applications. Its new operating system, Longhorn, will include all sorts of innovations that will make your applications cost more money. You won’t be able to copy files between computers without the permission of the original file owner. You won’t be able even to view a document if you haven’t been given explicit permission: if you haven’t paid. Question: would anyone in their right mind pay for an application that will make their computer more expensive?

I’ll give you the answer: they won’t, unless they’re tricked into it. I suspect that’s exactly how Microsoft intends to “market” Longhorn.

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