Sunday, September 03, 2006

Science Stuff!

The political lamp is OUT!

Let's switch to cool news of a civilization still brave enough to explore frontiers.

* Scientists say they have discovered a gene sequence which appears to play a central role in giving humans their unique brain capacity. The area, called HAR1, has undergone accelerated evolutionary change in humans and is active during a critical stage in brain development.

* An utterly fascinating article on the parasite toxoplasma, which apparently has the knack of altering the BEHAVIOR of the hosts that it infects. “This single-celled organism has a life cycle that takes it from cats to other mammals and birds and back to cats again. Studies have shown that the parasite can alter the behavior of rats, robbing them of their normal fear of cats--and presumably making it easier for the parasites to get into their next host.” And now: “Proceedings of the Royal Society of London is publishing a called, "Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?"

* A controversial alternative to black hole theory has been bolstered by observations of an object in the distant universe, researchers say. If their interpretation is correct, it might mean black holes do not exist and are in fact bizarre and compact balls of plasma called MECOs.

* And another puzzler: U.S. astronomers say a survey of galaxies observed along the sight lines to quasars and gamma-ray bursts creates a cosmic conundrum -- odd galaxy distribution. The survey revealed a puzzling inconsistency: Galaxies appear to be four times more common in the direction of gamma-ray bursts than in the direction of quasars. Quasars are thought to be powered by accretion of material onto supermassive black holes in the centers of distant galaxies. Gamma-ray bursts, the death throes of massive stars, are the most energetic explosions in the universe. But researchers say there's no known reason to expect galaxies in the foreground to have any association with these background light sources.

* Instead of building a wall on the USA-Mexico border just for security purposes, why not build a solar array structure that also provides electric power to border states on both sides and provides economic benefits as well? That's what engineer/inventor Ken Clements is proposing with his "Friendship Solar Array Project,"

* A futuristic camera system will make it possible to create compellingly realistic synthetic actors by capturing the facial movements of real actors in much greater detail than is currently possible. Instead of grabbing points on a face, it will be able to capture the entire skin.

* The print-on-demand business is gradually moving toward the center of the marketplace. What began as a way for publishers to reduce their inventory and stop wasting paper is becoming a tool for anyone who needs a bound document. Short-run presses can turn out books economically in small quantities or singly, and new software simplifies the process...

* "Powered Shoes," a pair of motorized roller skates that cancel out a person's steps, could let users naturally explore virtual reality landscapes in confined spaces....

* Science-fiction writers Vernor Vinge and Cory Doctorow look at the various ways a technological Singularity will develop in the near future and conclude that a cooperative model linking computers, networks, and people makes the most sense....

* Researchers believe they have found a second code in DNA in addition to the genetic code. The second code, superimposed on the first, sets the placement of the nucleosomes, miniature protein spools around which the DNA is looped.

* Thirteen of the World's Twenty Highest Buildings Have Opened Since 1996

2008?: 2,313 feet? (Burj Dubai, UAE)
2004: 1,670 feet (Taipei 101, Taipei)
1998: 1,483 feet (Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur)
1974: 1,450 feet (Sears Tower, Chicago)
1972: 1,368 feet (World Trade Center, New York)
1931: 1,250 feet (Empire State Building, New York)
1930: 1,046 feet (Chrysler Building, New York)
1913: 792 feet (Woolworth Building, New York)
1908: 612 feet (Singer Building, New York)

So much for "Freedom Tower" being highest at 1776 feet!


sociotard said...

Regarding the Friendship Array:

I love the concept of an array that provided earth-friendly power to both sides of the border, much as manmade Lake Amistad (spanish for Friendship) provides irrigation water. I would however like to point out two things:

1) sharing a resource can be a divisive factor. (hey you quit hogging it all!)

2) Building a fence won't stop people from trying to get into the country. building a solar array won't stop people from trying to get in and accidentally damaging the panels on their way. The illegal border crossing is only going to be resolved by programs that make it easier for immigrants (especially unskilled labor) to come over legally. One of the few issues I've supported Bush on.

Rob Perkins said...

"The coming singularity", even if Vinge's stories are a lot of fun, is still in the realm of mysticisms and unfounded optimisms, in my opinion. What assurance do we have that AI will be an invention at any point in the future, especially with most of the world's software geniuses focused down on improving finite state machine logic?

David Brin said...

About the yin/yang of a coming “technological singularity”:

Tony Fisk said...

Toxoplasma's abilities are pretty amazing for such a small package (does Woody Allen like cats?).
David, the link to Zimmer's article is a bit broken. Try this

From the same source, I thought the wasp which literally 'leads' cockroaches off to a fate worse than death was pretty creepy too.

A mystery closer to home than quasars: what process produces acetylene on Enceladus? (""Forming acetylene requires the breakdown of long-chain hydrocarbons or temperatures of 1,770 Kelvin, which you don't have," Dennis said. "So we think we must have catalytic chemistry down there, which could mean there's all kinds of interesting things we're not detecting" so far in the chemistry of Enceladus' geysers. Cool. ")

More cool: someone has a possible recipe for high temperature superconductors (as in up to 430K: assuming just the right mix and a prevailing tailwind!)

And who was bemoaning the lack of muscle pills in this Brave New World a week or two ago?

(You'll need subscriptions to view them online, I'm afraid. Yeah, Blake, I know NS is a science populariser. Once you get past the gee-whiz splashy headlines, you usually get a more cautious assessment, though. And I find it's as much fun to see *how* people are tackling problems as how much progress they're making, which usually isn't a lot. Small steps, Elly...)

Anonymous said...

The discovery of the HAR1 suggests that it might be possible to do a shabby version of "uplift."

Who would have thought that the easy part was increasing intelligence? Things like hands and voice boxes would be a lot more difficult, so you might have smart animals that can't participate fully in human civilization.

Big question: Would increasing the size of an animal's cerebral cortex trigger changes in the size of the skull and the capacity of the circulatory system? If not, you'd be very limited in the size of the new brain.

* * *

In other news, I baked my fourth blackberry pie of the summer, and this time I'm keeping it all to myself. Nyahh! Nyahhh!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

The blurb for the paper you linked to says:

The accelerating pace of change, especially technological progress, may be a big reason that millions now yearn for simpler times.

Here is a list of just a few of the inventions discovered in the 45 year period between 1886 and 1928.


1886: Dishwasher: Josephine Cochrane
1889: Automobile: Gottlieb Daimler
1893: Wireless communication: Nikola Tesla

1902: Air Conditioner: Willis Carrier
1903: Powered airplane: Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright
1907: Helicopter: Paul Cornu
1907: Washing machine: Alva Fisher

1913: Radio: Reginald Fessenden
1914: Liquid fuel rocket: Robert Goddard
1914: Tank, military: Ernest Dunlop Swinton
1918: Pop-up toaster: Charles Strite

1923: Sound film: Lee DeForest
1923: Television: Philo Farnsworth
1928: Antibiotics: Alexander Fleming


Can you list the inventions discovered between 1961 and now than have had a similar impact on people's lives?

David Brin said...

This is a perennial and complex issue, worthy of discussion.

But as for this list, it is easily shown to be simplistic. Try this on for size.

Instead of looking at when each of these things was inventes, try looking at when they actually came into the hands of the great mass of people.

Anonymous said...

With the case of tanks and liquid fuel would hope they never are owned by the masses.

If Ward and June Cleaver were somehow transported 50 years forward, to our present, I can't think of anything offhand that would cause them to ooh and aah.

Someone transported from 1878 to 1928, however, would see plenty of things that would blow their minds...

Tony Fisk said...

Q: try looking at when they (inventions) actually came into the hands of the great mass of people.

A: With the case of tanks and liquid fuel would hope they never are owned by the masses.

Can you answer the question straight, Monkyboy? (a simple 'no' is acceptable;-)

As for the Carvers: they'd probably ooh and ahh at stuff like: TV, air travel, CDs and DVDs, walkmen, ipods, automatic doors, credit cards, mobile phones, digital cameras (either separate or combined), international phone calls, 3G phone calls, mars Rover cam, lasers, holograms, weather satellites, computers, blogs, flickr, google search,

being able to contribute...

Speaking of which... David, did you pick up Jamais Cascio's recent post commenting on the impromptu Sri Lankan tsunami watch system run by locals?

"Unsurprisingly, the government is unhappy with this ad hoc effort, and has declared the program illegal."

(Stefan, you uplifting blackberry pies, again!? How many have you *eaten* this summer?)

Xactiphyn said...

Monkeyboy makes an interesting point, one we have heard many times before and one that is partially correct. It is correct that the major technological gizmos that fundamentally changed how we live our lives mostly were invented before WWII. The only recent inventions I can think of that belong in the same category he listed are computers, cell phones and the internet.

But I think this analysis misses three large categories of change that every person feels dramatically. But first let me point out I'm not including scientific discoveries as a big deal to normal people. While they often lead to big deals down the road, most people could care less about chaos theory, dark matter, galaxy formation, etc., etc.

The three broad categories of changes not included in simple invention lists are 1) economic, 2) external changes and 3) component internal, in particular: software.

1) Until 1974 the median income for men had been going up for decades in this country which has allowed many more people to take part in all this wonderful inventions you mention.

2) Many changes occur outside the home and are not directly related to inventions in the normal sense. For example, the invention of the airplane really doesn't affect you until you can purchase a ticket yourself, which requires airports, airlines and enough income (point 1). Cars don't matter as much without our modern highway system. And so on. Supermarkets, malls, Walmart (for good or ill), etc. all fall into this category as well.

3) We tend to ignore major advances within the categories as if they don't matter. For some reason, washing cloths and washing dishes are considered separately, but we don't stop to realize the importance of cable tv, vcrs, dvd, tivo, etc. Heck, the remote control. All of these examples fall into the category of "TV", yet they have a profound influence on how we use the tv.

Think of this, my daughter (10) has never experience the need to wait for a show she cares about to broadcast the next episode and sit herself in front of the tv at the pre-determined time to view it. Season two of Lost comes out on DVD next week, so we will soon be caught up to "live" broadcasts for season three, but even then it will be all tivo'd -- not exactly the experience I had at the same time waiting for the next Six Million Dollar Man.

And yes, all that matters. Those are big changes.

That, and the fact that basically all of mankind's knowledge is just a few keystrokes away...

Anonymous said...

Hehe, Tony.

Perhaps my fictional examples were a little too America-centric. They were a famous couple from a TV show from the 1950s.

Few of the things you listed weren't available in the 1950s.

The best international plane ride I've taken was aboard a Constellation.

Cable TV has been available in America since 1948.

And I just watched a movie from 1939 (It happened one night?) where one of the characters had a remote controlled garage door opener and an autogyro to get around in.

I don't think the Cleavers would be that impressed with the ability to digitally film themselves re-enacting a lightsaber duel and posting it on YouTube...

Anonymous said...

About interesting things being done that could deeply change our lives in the next future...
A project to build a self-replicating rapid-prototyper and open-source it.

reason said...

Interesting that you quote those building heights in feet. As far as I know the US is the only place still officially using Imperial (Roman?) measurements. (Although America has its own version of some of them).

I seem to remember Reagan convincing everyone, that American's were too dumb to cope with the change (unlike everybody else - so much for American self-confidence). -)

If the USD falls big time and the US starts manufacturing again for the rest of the world you will have to get used to grams and centimetres at last.

Sidereus said...

This ruined my day:

Crocodile Hunter killed by stingray:

Tony Fisk said...

hehe yourself, my simian chum!

Air travel and TV were available, if not ubiquitous in the fifties. That I'll grant. The rest of my list were not. Oh! The Carvers would recognise a lot of them (Dick Tracy and his two way wristwatch was what, thirties?) But to actually use them or make sense of them?

Oh, and you haven't answered DB's question yet. How long did it take some of these inventions to become universally available? (eg the aeroplane took 50 years)

Try comparing something like the phonograph and the walkman, or the washing machine and the microwave oven.

Shazam McShotgunstein said...

There's also a big difference between what exists today as a working lab prototype and what is widely available to the masses. Would the Cleavers be blase about buckytubes, or remote-controlled cockroaches, or brain-implant-controlled artificial limbs, or screening their embryos for predisposition to cancer, or being able to buy a ticket to fly on a privately developed suborbital spaceship or to take a vacation on a space station?

Also, one of the greatest areas of technological improvement since fifty years ago has been ignored so far: advances in medicine. While it doesn't lend itself as well to wiz-bang special effects, how many people now enjoy a much longer life and/or much greater quality of life because of statins, antidepressants, surgeries and such that were unheard of fifty years ago?

Getting away from western-centrism, think also of how much more broadly the wealth of technological society has been spread since fifty years ago. There are today at least hundreds of millions, if not billions, of well-fed, well-educated, wired people who could access this blog if they wanted to, whose grandparents grew up as illiterate subsistence farmers.

Shazam McShotgunstein said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rob Perkins said...

About the yin/yang of a coming “technological singularity”:

Ah no. That's a good essay, but my question centers around the basis for Kurzweil and Vinge et. al.'s faith that the coming technological singularity is real.

Basically I'm daring someone to convince me that their vision is a true one. It appears to hinge on the development of an equivalent machine intelligence which operates with at least the facility, and much more speed, as a human mind.

After decades, and no improvement in *software* science or an understanding of how our brains really work, I doubt their predictions.

Anonymous said...


I'm not dodging the question...the answer is...probably much sooner than you think.

Commercial airlines started in the 1920s. Sure, it was mainly for the rich, but the airmail service those planes provided was affordable for most...and the pilots and stewardesses who got to fly around the country weren't rich, either.

The "Brownie" camera brought affordable photography to the "masses" in 1900:

I see that invention as several orders of magnitude greater than today's ability to take gigabytes worth of may see it differently.

And as bryan pointed out...most of the "science" that techies drool over today may be decades or even centuries away from providing the average person with any benefits...

41 years of looking for the Higgs boson hasn't produced anything of value...has it?

And Big Bang "research," other than lifetime employment for some people...will probably never pay off.

And on a side's the soot from the coal-fueled powerplant that makes people long for simpler times...not the power it provides.

David Brin said...

I said the issue is complex. Someone please cite my blog entry in which I discuss Huber & Mills... vs a guy named Hubner or Huebner (?) whose book claims with far more detail that progress has slowed down. At least please read up, if you are going to present this old shibboleth.

For Beaver’s parents not to be astonished by a world in which every citizen carries around an instant-access radio-phone that can cheaply text message pals in Tokyo would have been stunning... till they took it for granted. Likewise the power to google lookup almost ANYTHING from the vast human knowledge base with instant gratification... or the disappearance of encyclopedias in the home...

Alas. Again, we see character and personality being more important that facts. IF your MAIN OBJECTIVE is to be a cynical grouch, you can dismiss all these things. Because people wear much the same clothes, get caught in traffic and girls still say “I’m not ready” 99% of the time. (Good for them.) Hence, the future just ain’t here.

The REAL answer is one that I give at:

The thing that would shock Ward Cleaver is having had TWO African American Secretaries of State in a row, with every housewife in America getting their advice how to live from a black lesbian on TV. Or having a President who never read a book.

Or a generation in which kids no longer complain (much) that “Dad is never around” and instead bitch that he’s “always hovering and pushing activities... and NO way Dad. We are NOT gonna double date!”

Please read
It never had a full discussion.

Now let me turn around and admit that I HATE the 21st Century so far! A time of future-shocked timidity, anti-science (on the right) and anti-technology (on the left) mysticism and romanticism and outright cowardice by millions of shallow cynicism-junkies who refuse to face our human duty to either make a LOT of progress or else die and get out of the way so that chimps or dolphins can have a crack at it.

Okay, let me turn around AGAIN!

There’s a recent book came out about the year 1910 and how rosy and hopeful the world looked. Radio, refrigerators, phones, cars, airplanes... never again would so many PRACTICALLY MIRACULOUS things seem ready to transform everything so thoroughly, just as soon as they would trickle down enough...

Then the world changed, in 1914. Pax Britannica -- seemingly permanent and robust -- crashed amid the utter failure of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren to rise above human nature. Indeed, go back and look at the events of 1814 and 1714, too! Is it possible that we measure the change-of-century mark at the wrong year?

Heinein saw 2014 as the year that President Nehemia Scudder declares himself Prophet of the Lord....


reason... yeah... feet are dumb. But building a tower 1776 METERS high would take too much ambition.

bryan, yes! The sprtead of a world middle class is the biggest news of all time. In all of human history. America did that! By the simple mechanism of buying SEVEN TRILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF CRAP WE NEVER NEEDED. I have talked about that elsewhere. The sad thing is, we’ll never get any credit.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

Again with the personal attacks?

All I'm trying to do is come with a scientific measure of the "acceleration of technology" average people have experienced throughout history.

My hypothesis is that the people who were around from, say, 1880-1930 experienced a much greater "acceleration of technology" than we who have been around from 1956-2006.

I would argue that cars, airplanes, telephones, etc. are bigger technological shocks than cellphones and google...

Do you have a counter arguement?

David Brin said...

There were no personal attacks, just swipes. Learn the difference. We're big boys here. I take a lot of crap from you, so buck up and take moderate, eventempered pokes from me.

Everything you propose is utterly subjective. How can one compare the personal mobility of the car to the fantastic mobility of the mind offered by Google? It's an interesting argument... but then non-so interesting.

I have VERY often said that the 1910 epoch was stunning. So? There were ALSO people of that time investing vast hopes into the simplistic jargon-incantations of Freud and Marx and Hegel and Horbigger. Finally outgrowing those imbecillitites took a century and was vastly more important than air travel.

David Brin said...

Blake, what is the most celebrated holiday in the whole wide world?

Supposedly New Years Day (western-secular).

But in fact it is 8 days after Christmas... in other words, the day Jesus was circumcised.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

The swipes don't bother me, I usually get death threats at the sites I usually post at.

So, you are saying when you wrote:

The accelerating pace of change, especially technological progress, may be a big reason that millions now yearn for simpler times.

You were being subjective?

I think there are some objective measures available to us.

Consider the transatlantic cable, completed in 1866.

Before then, the fastest a message could travel between Europe and America was 8 days (the record for a transatlantic crossing at the time).

A simple question and response would take over two weeks...the cable lowered that time to almost zero.

There are other examples of objective data we could collect to measure the "acceleration of technology" people have experienced at each point in history.

And I would argue the biggest shock the Cleavers would experience in our time is how much they could sell their house for...

David Brin said...

Posh. Now compare how long it would take the telegram to get the last couple of miles to your home... via bicycle-reading Western Union Boy... to today's light speed. Or compare the cost per word.

Both chnaged vastly more as a percentage, from 1910 to today.

You keep misunderstanding the word "objective." I really don't mean insult when I say that millions are incapable of knowing what it means, as a matter of personality.

What "objective" is NOT is waving a "fact" around and saying "seeeeee?"

Anonymous said...

What "objective" is NOT is waving a "fact" around and saying "seeeeee?"

I couldn't agree more.

That's why I question all the people making subjective claims of "rapidly accelerating technology" to sell books, earn speaking fees and raise VC money.

At least I'm trying to come up with a scientific measure...that should count for something...

Tony Fisk said...

I can see this post is going to drop into the middle of something. (Must learn to touch type!) Oh well... time out!

Wasn't Christmas originally celebrated on Dec 25 to blend in with the mithraic festivities (which was originally Dec 21 before precession was accounted for)?

2+0+1+4 = 7. I'm sure someone can run with that fundamental.

Feet aren't dumb, it's hands! An accident of biochemistry has left us with a number system whose base isn't particularly divisible (unlike 12...or the babylonian's 60!). The dissonance involved in switching systems isn't that traumatic but, you might as well wait until we all go hexadecimal!!

Ro-man: I cannot - yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do "must" and "cannot" meet? Yet I must - but I cannot!
Sorry, Monkyboy, if that was a bit low, but I couldn't resist!
I begin to appreciate what David means by a complex subject. How do you measure the "acceleration of technology" for the masses when the terms in which it is defined are changing?

One problem is the perception of technological advance. Is it the gee whiz factor? Is it the speed at which it matures and blends into the background? The speed with which it is adopted? The convenience factor?
How long did it take Google to become your friend?

Another is how you measure worthwhile advance. If you look at David's 2001 article, and a couple of his recent comments, he's emphasising the social outlook as much, if not more than the technological.

Perhaps any slowdown (if there is any) in technological change, is just a breather while we take stock of our new toys and learn how to use them effectively? Check out this article If we don't learn the basics of the art of conversation, all the social software in the world won't make us more effective.

If you think today's technology has lost the capacity to shock, then you haven't seen someone freak when shown how to edit a wiki page! Being able to contribute is a profound social seachange brought about by universal communication. It will be interesting to see what happens when (*WHEN*) we get over the Diebold debacle and trustworthy online voting becomes readily available.

Objectivity: the ability to see something without putting a spin on it. Easy to say, hard to do (indeed, impossible at the quantum level! Oh no! What did I just say!!?)

Monkyboy, I think you are trying, but waving 'yes I understand' and then snarking the host isn't being, well, objective!

The topic you're currently looking at has a lot more than one variable to it, which is how you seem to present your arguments (hence the Ro-man dig). First task is to try and untangle them all. (No, I have no solution, but I am trying to admire the problem)

Sidereus said...

Worthy of its own thread but I'll post here since science is being discussed:

More bad news regarding CO2/climate change:

Carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than at anytime in the last 800,000 years, the latest study of ice drilled out of Antarctica confirms.

Initial results from the Epica core were published in 2004 and 2005, detailing the events back to 440,000 years and 650,000 years respectively. Scientists have now gone the full way through the column, back another 150,000 years.

The picture is the same: carbon dioxide and temperature rise and fall in step.

"Ice cores reveal the Earth's natural climate rhythm over the last 800,000 years. When carbon dioxide changed there was always an accompanying climate change. Over the last 200 years human activity has increased carbon dioxide to well outside the natural range," explained Dr Wolff.

Anonymous said...

Sidereus, that's the whole global warming argument in a nutshell.

Unless you can somehow deny that either, a) CO2 is a greenhouse gas, or b) we aren't producing it, it is a pretty damn solid case.

Now, how do we convince the president?

David Brin said...

Interesting Worldchanging article on "conversation." I posted this response:

I agree that all of the social networking in the world won't matter in the least until tools of conversation improve deamatically on the web. Right now, "innovative" places like MySpace and SecondLife emphasize preening and buxom avatars and flirting and "ROFL" ... never noticing one simple fact. While flirtation is nice, at least some of their customers just might want to express a cogent though in more than a single blurted sentence.

They CAN do that in the world of blogging, but the comment-threading systems are so poor.

Between these two worlds? A vast wasteland where no dispute can be resolved and no assertions checked. No cooperative enterprise planned and no misunderstandings solved. I talk about this problem is general theoretical terms at:

PRAGMATICALLY, I am trying to innovate new (20,000 years old) conversation modes for the online world at:

Whether or not these moves are the right ones, it is time to admit just how primitive things have been, so far.

Anonymous said...


I'm hardly a Luddite.

I just see Ray Kurzweil and his ilk as modern-day charlatans peddling youth tonics and singularities to gullible youths.

I recognize the true advances we've made, but most of them are cost-saving inventions that funnel all the cost-savings to those who push the technology.

Consider the marvel that is the modern, fuel-injected, computer controlled car engine. It is impressive, but...

Way back when I was in school, I and just about every male (and some females) on my block could fix any engine problem, up to and including a total rebuild, in our own garages.

Now when one of these wonders breaks, I check to make sure the car isn't out of gas, give a cursory look under the hood, then call the tow truck and prepare to grab my financial ankles.

And do people really think an automated help system or some guy in India called "David" is actually better service than the knowledgable people you used to be able to get on the phone when you had a problem with a product?

I don't think an objective measure of the pace of technological change would be that hard to come up with.

I do question why those whose training would best lend itself to such a task are the most resistant to coming up with one...

Rob Perkins said...

Blake, what is the most celebrated holiday in the whole wide world?

Supposedly New Years Day (western-secular).

But in fact it is 8 days after Christmas... in other words, the day Jesus was circumcised.

Um... It's pretty well known that Christmas is celebrated four days after the Solstice because of a Roman Catholic contrivance; the text of the Bible suggests much more strongly that Jesus was born closer to the Spring Equinox. Or so I've been taught, while also cheerfully celebrating Christmas with the rest of the world all my life!

Just... a point of order, there, lest we get too carried away with the numerology stuff...

Rob Perkins said...

Now when one of these wonders breaks, I check to make sure the car isn't out of gas, give a cursory look under the hood, then call the tow truck and prepare to grab my financial ankles.

Yeah, but consider the tradeoffs: 1) Emissions on your car are *way* down compared to the ones we could all fix in a garage. 2) Gas milage is slightly up, maybe way up for some models. And 3) How often do they really break down?

Xactiphyn said...


Objectivity is innately difficult and formally measuring all progress a very tricky thing, but how about this, the first thing that came to mind: Table of Annual U.S. Patent Activity Since 1790.

I'll toss out a few years for just utility patents:

1800: 41
1825: 304
1850: 884
1875: 13,291
1900: 24,656
1925: 46,432
1950: 43,039
1975: 72,000
1990: 90,365
1995: 101,419
2000: 157,494
2004: 164,293

There is some objective data. Have at it. Certainly doesn't look like things are slowing down to me.

Oh, and that data was instantly available simply because I desired it. Try looking up those numbers 10 years ago. And showing them to your favorite author. In a conversation spanning people from several continents. Just for fun.

Tony Fisk said...

MB: Did I call you a luddite?

While there's a lot to be said for 'owning' the technology, I seem to recall every guy on the block spending all his waking hours doing a rebuild.

Online help systems can easily become online hide, but the basic issue is about scaling up from the days when only a few people had the things that caused problems. Anyway, if you've still got a problem? Google for it! It's amazing what people talk about.

(Since I've been extolling the joys of Google, I should point out a little snippet from the Feedback column in this week's NS, where they grumble about the letter telling them to 'cease and desist' using that company's name as a verb, thereby diluting the term and reducing its value as a trademark. Is this the first step on the slippery slope that leads to Redmond?)

(Rob, I think we were treating the numerology stuff with due respect)

Mark, the figures look impressive. What do they mean? Are they adjusted for population? How many of those have resulted in a useful product getting to market and how many have caused its suppression?
The company where I worked (and still contract for) is currently nogotiating a merger. One perceived benefit is the cessation of lawsuits for patent infringements, which are currently costing millions pa.
(FWIW, patents are a pet bugbear of mine. Objectivity, as you say, is not easy.)

Still, I think your last paragraph says it all.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the patents Tony.

There's also the time smart people spend filling them out instead of doing work.

I know several very bright people who spend most of their time filling out grant requests and patent applications.

Here's another attempt at objectivity:

People spend most of their time in their homes. What technology do they have there?


I have, in order of preference, or the inverse order I would give them up in:

1. Electricity
2. Water
3. Sewer
4. Natural Gas
5. Internet
6. Cable TV
7. Phone


Same way:

1. Refrigerator
2. Stove
3. Computer
4. Washer & Dryer
5. TV
6. Microwave
7. Coffee maker
8. Dishwasher
9. Vacuum cleaner

I have a family, so I took my wife and kids into consideration...your mileage may vary, of course.

But...looking over my data, some recent tech is near the top, but most of it is old (water and sewer date at least to Roman times).

At least it is a start at a methodology to measure "tech acceleration." Survey America with this list of connections and appliances (I'm sure I've missed a few...alarm clocks, maybe?), asking them in what order they'd be willing to give them up.


Tony Fisk said...

MB: I'm not sure what you're trying to demonstrate with these lists.

To me, the significance of older technologies having top priority simply shows that our forebears rightly dealt with their fundamental needs first, a la Marslowe. I don't see how this measures technological acceleration.

(Incidentally, I'd put water, and probably sewage, ahead of electricity.)

Big C said...


Your proposal seems to me to only measure people's perception of technology acceleration (and maybe not even that, as Tony's comment shows above), which is far from an objective measure. The patent measurement might be more fruitful, if corrected for population and fraction of useful products generated, as Tony suggests.

And as for your personal list, would I be correct in guessing that the telephone is at the bottom of your household connections list because everyone in your house has a cell phone? Or does your phone entry include losing cell phone signals as well? And isn't whether you prepare food with a conventional stove or with a microwave a matter of personal preference?

And you poo-poo "today's ability to take gigabytes worth of crap" but let's consider all the things you can do with a computer and a few peripheral devices (I also notice the computer is pretty high on your list of appliances) and the ever-expanding amount of storage space we take for granted.

Wouldn't the Cleavers be amazed that a single machine on your desk can simultaneously serve as: a calculator, a typewriter (with real-time spelling and grammar help), a printing press, a photocopier, a music player, a movie player, a radio, a TV, a VCR (actually, a vastly superior DVR), a telephone, a fax machine, a video phone, a video arcade, a tough chess opponent, a tax accountant, a graphic design studio, a photo lab complete with editing and doctoring capabilities, a recording and editing studio, a movie editing studio, a 3D animation studio, and a near limitless storage archive for all the fruits of your creativity from these design studios and any other personal records you want to store?

And with the Internet, that same machine is an instantaneous gateway to: nearly every scrap of collected and preserved knowledge in recorded human history, mail delivery for messages to and from people anywhere in the world, the biggest international shopping mall that provides access to any item you want or need, near real-time news information, and a way to contribute all your own creativity directly back to everyone else.

And if you have no use for any of the things I mentioned above, you can also write new instructions for your machine to make it do any particular task you want. And the information on how to "reprogram" your machine is readily and instantaneously available on that Intarweb thingy.

Granted, the personal computer doesn't do all of these things well. It's not a substitute for a good Xerox machine or a movie studio. But it does put a significant portion of their functionality in the hands of everybody who's interested, at a cost that people can afford. The computer is enabling David's "Age of Amateurs" that allows just about anyone to do things and create things that in the past required very specialized knowledge.

Yes, computers were around in the 50's, and yes, people predicted that they would change our lives in amazing ways. They were just wrong about what they would actually change. Okay, we don't have AI and we don't have a superbrain computer running all the appliances in our house or doing all our housework for us like the Jetsons. But I will claim that the Internet has changed our lives as much as television and radio did when they were introduced.

And giving all these tools for creativity and innovation (including creating new uses for the computer itself) to every amateur instead of them being held tightly by disjoint subsets of professionals can only increase technology acceleration. Sure, most amateurs won't come up with anything useful for most of us, but the availability of the tools enables massive parallelization of the creative and innovative process. It's the same as biological evolution; millions of mutations can be tried in millions of combinations in millions of different individual organisms, and what gives the most net benefit survives to produce the next generation.

And you also didn't address Bryan's point further up about medical technology and the increase in quality and quantity of life. Isn't that significant?

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that the comment system for blogs is fairly poor. It would be cool if you could set up a Web forum using software like phpBB, though.

Also, I can't seem to find your comment on the page that Tony Fisk linked to. You might want to double-check that it was posted properly.

Anonymous said...

I wear on my wrist a watch that keeps better time than the finest Rolex available in 1955. It displays the time in both digital and analog formats, and the digital display can be instantly adjusted to any time zone in the world, as well as switching between 12-hour and 24-hour time displays.

I'm typing this on a computer that, back in '55, wasn't even conceivable. A system that would be UNIVAC's God, tiny enough to fit on a miniature desk? And yet, it's outperformed by my roommate's system - which he can fold up and carry around...

Looking around the room, I see color high-density TV with over 900 available channels (sure, a lot of them are pay-per-view, and 27 are actually audio feed from radio stations or specialty music channels, but they are available!), a dual-disk DVR (useful for recording two shows at once while I'm out, so I can change the TV schedule according to my whim), three different systems that will play a variety of entertaining games with me when there are no opponents available (and, should I choose to avail myself of their expanded capabilities, will find me opponents who live in other cities - even other countries!), a combined VCR/DVD player, a small library of movies and programs to watch on the DVD, and a telephone capable of connecting me with any other telephone on the entire planet, without the need for an operator to "assist" me.

I'm also carrying in my pocket a telephone that makes the one predicted by Heinlein in "Tunnel In the Sky" look sick. Mine not only functions as a telephone, but also is an alarm clock, a calculator, a camera (both still and video), and a game-playing device. It can transmit and receive written messages as well, and can even access the Internet (another wonder the Cleavers would never have believed!).

Keep in mind, I'm not considered especially wealthy, or even very well-off, in our culture, and the closest any of my tech comes to cutting-edge is the TV (and it's not one of those fancy LCD types, that can hang on the wall like a painting - no, it's a big ol' CRT-type...). The computer, game systems, DVD/VCR, and cable box/DVR are all at least one generation removed from cutting edge, the watch is available at Wal*Mart for less than twenty bucks (or about two hours' labor at my current, comparatively low rate of pay), and the cell phone is so far behind the curve, I got it free for signing up for my service!

Societal changes are even more significant, of course - in 1955, my family would have been shunned, and we could expect burning crosses on our lawn on a regular basis (I'm white, she's black), whereas today, we don't even draw a glance, except from people wondering what a hottie like her is doing with an overweight geek like me. And fifty years ago, the consensus among the psychiatric elite would have been that our daughter could not be helped, and should be institutionalized for the rest of her life (she's autistic). In our modern world, there are several proposed therapies, and she's slowly coming out of her shell, with considerable hope for a relatively normal adulthood.

You know, I think I really do prefer our modern world to the supposedly "morally superior" world of the last century...

Anonymous said...


Left out:

1. Lights
2. Furnace
3. Water Heater

I don't deny the computer/internets combo is impressive...but a dispassionate ranking of where they fit on the all-time greatest tech hits would probably put it in the middle of the pack.

I would guess that you wouldn't find more than one in a thousand homes that would be willing to give up indoor plumbing to keep them.

If you want to claim we are in an unprecedented time of technological revolution, come up with something people value more than the toilet!

As for medicine, most of the "gains" to life expectancy are the result of a reduction of infant moratality that took place over 60 years ago...

Anonymous said...

So, Monkyboy, is it truly your contention that there has been no significant technological progress since 1886 (the development of the first modern-style flush toilet), simply because if forced to choose, we'd rather give up our computers and automobiles than our indoor plumbing - the factor that makes the modern city possible? (Imagine, if you have the stomach for it, a high-rise apartment building - served entirely by chamberpots...)

I believe that the flaw in your argument is the belief that "technological achievement" and "popularity" are synonymous. I would argue, instead, for the everyday utlity of a given invention. For instance, the very existence of my job depends on computers, long-distance telephone lines, and wireless communications. In fact, in a world without computers, my unusual skill in logical thinking would have very little practical use.

(Which last reminds me of a line from the Rush song "2112", the response of the Priests of Syrinx to the young man who discovered a relic guitar - "Just think about the average/What use have they for you?")

In short, technological progress can't be measured simply in terms of whether the "average" person thinks it's essential - how many average people realize how much of their comfortable modern lives are enabled by computers, laser-equipped tools of various sorts, and wireless transmissions?

Anonymous said...


Yes, I think the best measure of a technology's value is the utility average people think the derive from it.

I think Dan Aykroyd said it best in Ghost Busters:

Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn't have to produce anything! You've never been out of college! You don't know what it's like out there! I've *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.

David Brin said...

BigC... alas, if my reply on WC failed, I must shrug. No time to try again... unless you want to quote me? ;-) Great site tho.

Monkyboy’s hierarchy of technologies he’d keep almost perfectly fits Maslowe’s “hierarchy of needs”. ... and my own notions about the invesre ratio of fear levels to worry horizons. So you’d keep electricity and water (wrong order!) before keeping phone & internet?

Um.... duh?

I keep pointing out that the essential thing here is PERSONALITY and M keeps on illustrating this point! A grouch sees this herarchy and say “I could live without the recent things, hence they are less important!”

Um... isn’t a better approach to say:

“My ancestors did their job, which was to take care of infrastructure that would take care of their childrens’ primary needs, freeing them to take them for granted and move down Maslowe’s list to other things! Other things that MY generation needs to take care of with just as much progressive, pragmatic...MODERNIST... vigor. So that our kids can do the same!”

The fundamental thing expressed here by M and earlier by Nicq --- (someone please tell him he is NOT unwelcome here or in exile; we need contributions - now and then - from solipsist-romantics!) --- is temporal chauvinist cynicism. According to the hierarchy of needs, WE HAVE WORK TO DO! Complicated tasks, vastly more daunting and nit-picking than those our parents faced, and no less demanding upon grit and determination. Like saving a planetary ecosystem. Like seeing to it that any Singularity (large or small) will be a “good” one.

No other generation could have taken on such tasks. PRECISELY BECAUSE OUR PARENTS WERE GREAT! They built the universities...

...(yes! those magnificvent universities, the best achievement in the history of this or any other world! The institutions most responsible for insuring against a return of feudalism.)...

...and the water supplies and the electricity networks and the phone systems SO THAT WE WOULD BE EQUIPPED TO TAKE ON SUCH TASKS!

Shall we shrink from them? Shuddering in disgust at the bourgeoise grittiness of it all? The fact-drenched, complex technicality of it all? The “soulless” need to cooperate with millions of others, instead of using subjective magic?

I find it hilarious that we are on the verge of deciding whether or not to be the makers of gods”... and yet, this time is viewed as mundane and unproductive.

Well, it will be, if we lose ourr nerve. If we let the anti future nostalgists of right and left yammer and destroy our can-do confidence, the greatest gift those problem-solving ancestors left us.


Having sais all that... let me add hurrah Monkyboy! You poked up a beehive of responses... most of them marvelous and eloquent... and some of them deeply moving.

While a part of me calls your attitude part of the big problem... I nevertheless smile. There's another part of you. The part that's poking at us. Testing whether we actually believe in CITOKATE, or if we are yet another incantation muemering cult.

You are welcome here! (And thus we pass a test! So far.)

REGISTER VOTERS, PEOPLE! And don't forget the state assembly races. Find the one near you that's most in the balance. Help that one. It can be as important as Congress and your effectiveness ratio may be good.

Anonymous said...

A perennial Brinny notion:

Proxy activism.

Nick Anthis, the science-blogger who outed NASA PR flak George Deutch as a creationist college drop-out, recently made this post about worthy science-related groups:

Putting Your Money where your Mouth is.

Big C said...

mokyboy said:
"Yes, I think the best measure of a technology's value is the utility average people think the [sic] derive from it."

I believe you've moved the argument. I thought we were talking about rate of technological advancement, not which technologies are most essential.

The quote you supplied from the article in your original post in this thread was:

The accelerating pace of change, especially technological progress, may be a big reason that millions now yearn for simpler times.

And your followup question after listing inventions from 1886 to 1928 was:
"Can you list the inventions discovered between 1961 and now than [sic] have had a similar impact on people's lives?"

I believe several people have supplied you with answers, as well as arguments about why this particular metric isn't a fruitful way to measure the "accelerating pace of change, especially technological progress."

mokyboy said in another post earlier:
"If Ward and June Cleaver were somehow transported 50 years forward, to our present, I can't think of anything offhand that would cause them to ooh and aah.

Someone transported from 1878 to 1928, however, would see plenty of things that would blow their minds...

You really haven't backed up this assertion, and we've presented many counterexamples. Unfortunately no one owns a time machine to try such an experiment, but why do you think that Ward Cleaver's astonishment at having all of human knowledge instantaneously at his fingertips would be somehow measurably smaller than Charles Dickens' amazement at the television?

And now monkyboy's latest challenge:
"If you want to claim we are in an unprecedented time of technological revolution, come up with something people value more than the toilet!" (Emphasis in original)

Again, I don't agree that this is an accurate measure for "technological revolution." We're still people who exist in physical space with physical needs. Of course, we're going to want to see those needs met before we satisfy our curiosity, intellectual stimulation, and creature comforts.

So what? That doesn't say anyhing about the rate of technological change. It's not a trivial matter to double the processing power, speed, and memory of our computers every 18 months. It takes a lot of ingenuity and innovation, and solutions to difficult challenges. Somehow, we continue to do it. And the new computers with twice as much power cost exactly the same as the old ones did, and are affordable. Would I sacrifice hot food and running water for it? Of course not, but that doesn't mean my life isn't "profoundly affected" by the new things I can do with so much computing power and information.

Notice how high-speed Internet service has gone from an expensive luxury item to an affordable home feature. No, people wouldn't give up indoor plumbing for Internet service, but many think of it as an essential home utility, like cable or telephone service. And that's within 5 years of it being widely available. How long did it take cable TV to become a standard utility in nearly every household? Wasn't that in the 80's? And didn't you say it was first available in America in 1948? Granted, high-speed Internet service still isn't everywhere like cable is, but it's already got major penetration, and saturation will take far less than 30+ years. This seems to me like a pretty good inidcator of increasing technological progress, acceleration, and adoption.

monkyboy said:
"As for medicine, most of the "gains" to life expectancy are the result of a reduction of infant moratality that took place over 60 years ago..."

True, but mortality rates have continued to drop significantly and quickly after that time. Here's a link to US infant mortality rates from 1950-2003. Notice how in 1950 we still had a 29% mortality rate, and that dropped to 10% by 1988. By 2003 we're at about 7%. And here's an article that supports your statement about infant mortality 60 years ago, but also notes that additional advances after that were also significant. Granted, they also cite social changes as well as advancements in medicine.

...And I see after typing all this that Brin has already left a response. I think his point about Maslowe's Hierarchy of Needs dovetails nicely with the points I've made. Oh, by the way, David, it was Doug S. who alerted you about your post missing on WC, not me.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin: Still with the linkless urls, I see. I think we're going to have to break out the CITOKATE stick, Dr. Brin, because I believe it is an error to just paste the URL.

For one, it is very nice that you provide this blog at all so maybe we should just shut up and take what we get, but providing a hyperlink is a basic convenience and courtesy to your readers.

For two, the web is built on links. Your web site is ranked highly (by Google, at least) so that your links have added weight. By linking to good stuff, you're adding value to the net. Helping to highlight what is worth reading. When you don't link, you don't add as much value. (Although of course you are adding *much* value even so, but you could be adding more fodder for the collective intelligence of search engines and whatnot.)

For three, I know there is a time issue, but really it takes a few extra moments to add the proper link markup.

For four, you're a scientist, a science fiction author, and a futurist. By not providing links you appear to be a backwards old codger!

Xactiphyn said...

I wrote something rather lengthy this morning, only to later quit Safari and see the window with the post and red letters warning me the password or word verification was wrong disappear into the bit graveyard. Oh well.

My main point was the importance of new technology never seems as important to those who still haven't adopted it compared to those that grew up with it. If you have a perfectly working outhouse, why bother with one of those fancy-dancy watersheds? If you already have perfectly reasonable lanterns, why waste the effort of installing wires and light bulbs?

I own a cell phone, but never got used to using it; months can go by with it uncharged and forgotten. But for some families the cell phone is their life blood. (Has there ever been an invention so coveted by teenagers yet their parents also want them to have just as much? Talk about a marketing sweet spot!) To me the cell phone is no big deal.

But give a sixteen year old girl the choice between her cell phone or electric light, do you really thing the light bulb would win?

BTW: if you really want to predict the future of technology, there seems to be one key: imagine it in the hands of a teenage girl.

Anonymous said...

Big C,

Perhaps I didn't carry my idea out far enough.

If you surveyed people every year, asking them to rank the essentialness of all the technology available to could use that data to plot the velocity, acceleration and even the jerk of each technology.

Imagine if you had such a data set from the past 50 years. You could plot the rise of computers as they passed by toasters, irons, vacuum cleaners, etc. to take a spot in the top ten...

And a comment on technology and what it replaced...

Electric lights-->candles
Flush toilet-->chamber pot/outhouse


I don't think many people mourned the loss of the outhouse, but, given the choice, I'd almost always prefer to spend time in a well-stocked library over time spent on the internet...(no, not nearly all knowledge is available on the internet).

The computer is more convenient than what it isn't necessarily better than what it replaced.

Xactiphyn said...

(no, not nearly all knowledge is available on the internet)

Not quite, not yet, but it's getting pretty darn close.

Anonymous said...

About life expectancy, I was reading some days ago (sorry, no link, I'm unable to find it again) that as consequence of the obesity "epidemic" currently spreading, for the first time this generation will have a lower average lifespan than the previous generation. With this I do not want to say that tech progress have not been phenomenal, only to remeber that the road of progress sometimes have some waterholes here and there...

About the hierarchy of needs that's being discussed between mokyboy and the others:
from one side, I think Dr. Brin and others are right when they say that only because you could not "survive" taking away some of the old technology this does not mean that the subsequent technology is less important.
On the other side, there's also something to be said about classificating the impact of a technology on our basic needs.
What i mean: technologies implemented during the industrial revolution and till approximately the half of past centuries totally revolutionized the way in wich we provide to our basic needs. After that, in those fields we've seen mostly evolutionary progres. The freedom allowed from satisfying that basic needs in such an efficient way allowed us to use a lot of effort for technologies of less urgent application, introducing in fact the information/communication age. Hopefully, this information age will be a step toward a new revolution in the way in wich we provide to our basic needs, as the way of providing to those needs that we introduced in the past now is starting to show its limits... the industrial era technology as it is, now seems not capable to provide for the future needs of all humanity. It's too resource-intensive, too subject to chocking points, too dependent on an existing network of infrastructures and so too delicate. The big gift that the information era is giving us to allow to surpass all those problems, is the methodology: a glimpse of what could be a future past the "age of scarcity", a model of interaction based on decentralized networks, and a way to give more power to the individual and less to the big central powers (one of the biggest revolution introduced by the information era in my opinion is the "open source" development model). An example of what I'm meaning, without evoking the much hyped nanotechnology (it may be the miracle they're promising or may be not.. too soon to judge) was the project of the self-replicating rapid prototyper i linked before: in case of success, it will mean being able to produce in our own homes a lot of the things we need daily. Slightly bigger models (and not self-replicating... yet) are already used in some projects in some Indian villages to implant a small local industrial base, allowing to "uplift" (;-)) the technological level of their daily life even in absence of the economical resources that would have been needed to buy all those same products... After all, implanting an industrial base is hard, expensive, subject to easy disruption in an hostile environment (both natural and social). Or that same technology is being used in our countries to fabricate on demand items for wich no industry would have been interested being one-of-akind and so on.
Another example of this kind of approach would be the introduction of widespread solar generation in private houses, allowing to reduce the dipendence from big centralized powerplants.
All these things seems to be just after the next corner, ready to arrive and truly revolution our lives. Some of those revolutions in some way, will be a return to the past.. at least, to some of the best aspect of the past that we had to discard to get rid of the nasty ones. Hey, if this is not a zero-sum game, it should be possible to have the egg today *and* the chicken tomorrow... :-P
Summing up, what i mean is that we're still supplying our basic needs with industrial era methodologies, and the true revolution, the one that will hopefully changethose dynamics is yet to come... very near, prepared by the information revolution of these years, but still yet to come.
Oh, and naturally, as this way of doing things will upset as many consolidated positions as the industrial revolution, it does have a lot more enemies than friends high up... the information revolution was different in most ways.. being something new, that did not touched at the beginning if not tangentially the estabilished industrial base, it had plenty of time to grow and acquire momentum before the external forces started trying bridling it...
Well, i hope I've suceeded explaining my point... sorry for any typos or grammar mistake but I'm not a native english speaker...

Big C said...

How does the change in perceived "essentialness" of any particular technology tell us anything about the rate of increase in technological progress?

People will always perceive the things that give them easy access to shelter, food, waste disposal, light, etc. as more "essential" than the ability to make your own movie and publish it on the Internet.

But you've got diminishing returns with further improvements in these basic technologies. Once you've gone from candles to electric lights, there's not much further improvement that I would consider "revolutionary." You can continually improve energy efficiency, maybe add sensors so that lights automatically go on and off when people enter/leave the room, but these incremental improvements that don't seem so amazing as very bright, consistent indoor light without danger of fire. But maybe I'm wrong on this. I'm willing to listen to a counterexample.

With "essential" technologies pretty much locked up, most inventors will focus on creating new technologies and finding new uses for old technology. Some inventors will continue to try to improve the "essential" technologies that satisfy our basic needs, but, as I said, that avenue has been well-mined and gives diminishing returns to the inventor.

But you've got an ever-increasing pool of would-be inventors trying to develop new technologies and push them to the public, and at least a portion of them are succeeding. In my opinion, an iPod improves on the Walkman by several orders of magnitude, and has changed the way people listen to music. But of course, people would never trade the iPod or the Walkman for running water.

monkyboy said:
"And a comment on technology and what it replaced...

Electric lights-->candles
Flush toilet-->chamber pot/outhouse


And you've ignored my previous post about the versatility of the computer+Internet. It's not a simple:


It's more like:

Computer-->library, post office (for letters, not physical packages), typewriter, photo lab, etc., etc.

Has any single device before the PC provided so many uses with the nearly limitless potential for more?

I never claimed the computer does all of those things better than the original technologies. I explicitly mentioned that it doesn't. That was never the point. You've shifted the argument again. We're not talking about what technologies are better, we're talking about whether the rate of change of technology is accelerating. The computer accelerated information technology like nothing before it, and it turns out a surprising amount of human endeavors can be thought of as information processing activites. Thus, the computer, and all accompanying technologies that increase its information-processing power and capabilities, enables rapid technological change. It also enables the activity of invention itself, by giving access to relatively sophisticated tools for creativity and innovation to just about everyone.

Xactiphyn said...

Computer-->library, post office (for letters, not physical packages), typewriter, photo lab, etc., etc.

Has any single device before the PC provided so many uses with the nearly limitless potential for more?

That what I was trying to get at with "3) component internal, in particular: software." Some inventions open entire categories of invention. Think of the link I posted to Google books. They are currently scanning in every freaking book in existence. Soon, any book in the public domain, which includes everything published before 1923, will be available on line. That is an idea comparable to the printing press itself, yet it casually goes under the category "computer" or "internet".

Anonymous said...

Has any single device before the PC provided so many uses with the nearly limitless potential for more?

How about electricity?

In a way, computers are just one more of the many functions of electricity.

Think of all the functions engines, trucks, boats, planes, etc.

Multiple applications seems to be the mark of a useful technology...

With "essential" technologies pretty much locked up...


Just because nobody has discovered an "essential" technology in over a hundred years doesn't mean there are none out there...waiting to be discovered.


Do you think there is a connection between obesity and technology?

Xactiphyn said...


Electricity is nothing without the metallurgy to make the wires. So really, the light bulb, the real, fundamental component, was invented several thousand years ago.

Or, perhaps, that isn't the correct way to look at it. Just because something is a "fundamental" technology, doesn't mean it isn't dependent on anything else, does it? If it does, if you choose to go with that definition, none of the inventions on your initial list probably count.

But even if you do go with the extreme definition, the finite state machine is probably the most recent, fundamental invention. (Or not, I'm sure someone on this list will come up with something newer.)

Anonymous said...

I don't see why an invention can't be both a part of an unbroken chain stretching back to humanity's first toolmaking attempt and a discrete product that can be judged on its own merits, Mark.

I think my methodology stands, and the computer would rate as a good, not great invention...

Now we just need to find funding for my survery.

Anonymous said...


well, there's a link... maybe not direct, but nontheless... i mean, our bodies evolved for a subsistence level diet, where each scrap of high-nutrient food had to be sought and optimized, while working physically hard to earn it. Now we've the means to supply our body with as much calories as we could desire, with foods that nonetheless often lacks the fundamental nutrients instead, and moreover while having to spend most of the day sit at a desk.
An example of this problem is in an article I read just this morning:
Obesity in Asia mirrors western increase

As asia industrialize itself, fatally their pattern is the same of western countries... now, it's true that a strong-willed (or genetically lucky) individual can overcome this problem... but when you're speaking of consistent percentage behaviours among different cultures, it's a strong sign that there're "imperatives" involved.
As simply going back to the "old" way of life is not acceptable (it could become mandatory if some of the worst-case scenarios for our future will become true, but we hope that that will not be the case..), if we want to find a solution to this problem we'll have to ask it from the medical science... the consistent percentages in so many countries seems to indicate that cultural cures simply would be not sufficient... we'll see...

Anonymous said...

Oh, if there's somebody interested...
I was speaking of the self replicating stuff before, but here is another article that speaks of a glimpse of what could mean for our daily life the revolution of decentralized personal factories:
The Dream Factory

Big C said...

You haven't addressed any of the criticisms to your method, or the counterpoints to your arguments. If you're just going to ignore criticism (other than cherry-picking the weakest points of my arguments) could you at least admit that I have a point you're not addressing?

You've continued to shift the discussion from assessing whether the pace of technology advancement is accelerating to whether people from the 50's would be as wowed by our modern technology as people from the 1800's would be wowed by 50's technology (something that doesn't seem possible to be objectively evaluated without a time machine) to wanting to see what technologies people would rate as "essential" to poo-pooing the computer because people surprisingly prefer not starving and not freezing to death to being able to surf the Internet. I don't see a coherent point, much less a coherent methodology that would answer any interesting questions.

mokeyboy said:
"the computer would rate as a good, not great invention..."

Says you. There is a microprocessor in nearly every electronic product today. Pretty "essential" don't you think? Yes, the computer depends on electricity. I never claimed new inventions couldn't build on the infrastructure of old ones.

Electricity enables relatively cheap energy transmission and delivery. Computers enable relatively cheap information processing and transformation. Both technologies seem pretty "great" to me.

monkyboy said:
"Just because nobody has discovered an "essential" technology in over a hundred years doesn't mean there are none out there...waiting to be discovered."

I wasn't claiming all "essential" technologies have been discovered, but rather that all technologies "essential" to satisfying basic human needs are at a state where you get diminishing returns for incremental improvement. Technologies that provide immediate access to shelter, light when it's dark, heat when it's cold and cold when it's hot, hot and cold food, waste disposal, and instantaneous communication (humans are social animals), are readily available and aren't getting that much better. New advances in these technologies may focus more on how to deliver these things more efficiently to the rest of the world, at reduced cost of resources.

A better way to look at technology acceleration might be to look at how quickly new technologies go from being luxuries to utilities, as I mentioned earlier.

How long did it take for each of these things:
running water and sewage
cable and satellite TV
convection oven

to go from invention to being a luxury item in rich people's homes to being available in a majority of American households?

Compare that to the same time it took for:
cell phone
high-speed Internet access
CD player
DVD player

Not to mention how long it took from the invention of the integrated circuit to the point where nearly every electronic product produced has a microprocessor inside it.

Doesn't that indicate that new technologies are coming faster, being adopted and integrated faster, and being accepted faster to change some aspects (no, not all of the "essential" aspects, but some "important" aspects) of how we live?

Anonymous said...

Big C,

You, Dr. Brin and several other posters seem to place an inordinate amount of value on the final step, when technology is available to individuals without having to go through the government or large corporations.

You guys also seem to have a very low opinion of public opinion.

Let me guess...Libertarians?

I think a vast majority of Americans see they can use their computers to do things they can already do with other tools and say...ho hum.

Big C said...

I'm still waiting for a substantive response to any of my criticisms. My opinion of public opinion and my particular political affiliation or ideology are irrelevant to my criticisms of your methodology (by the way, you're wrong on both counts).

I made several arguments about why I think giving more people direct access to sophisticated tools should increase the pace of technology advancement. Care to respond to any of them?

You still haven't shown me how assessing which technologies the public thinks are "essential" says something objective about the pace of technology advancement. I and others have provided several reasons why this link seems tenuous at best and misleading at worst, and you haven't bothered to answer any of those criticisms. This is not an indictment of public opinion, but rather an indictment of your claim that measuring public opinion in the way you describe would answer the question of judging whether or not technology advancement is accelerating.

Care to respond to the criticisms I've made with more than bald assertions?

Anonymous said...

Big C,

Looking back over your posts, I can't really see what your argument is.

The question is: How fast is technology "accelerating?"

I proposed that a simple survey of "average" people to get their opinion on the topic would be the best way to measure this.

You seem to be suggesting that the opinion of a panel of self-interested "experts" would be a better measure.

Or our disagreement might come from this:

I think a technology's biggest impact is when it first becomes available to anyone, i.e. the government, corporations, "the rich," etc..

You seem to be arguing that improvements in cost, accessibility and convenience are just as important as the initial appearance of a technology.

Consider the car:

The Model T from Ford was available 100 years ago to average Americans at an affordable price.

Are today's cars more "advanced?"

No doubt about it.

Would a proud Model T owner from 100 years ago be impressed by a modern car...maybe. I don't doubt they could hop right into the modern car and drive just fine...

The leap from horse to Model T, I think, is orders of magnitude larger than the jump from Model T to Toyota Camry.

Big C said...

Thanks, that does make your position a little clearer to me, but I think you've misunderstood my objections to your arguments.

You said:
"I proposed that a simple survey of "average" people to get their opinion on the topic would be the best way to measure this."

My first problem is with the question you proposed to ask. You proposed getting a list of what technologies people consider "essential." As I and others stated before, it's no surprise that the technologies that provide for basic human needs will always rank at the top. Those technologies are ones that are changing the least, so it seems you've already built your conclusion into the survey question.

How about asking people point blank, "Do you think the rate of human technological advancement in the last 50 years is speeding up or slowing down compared to the previous 50 years?"

My second problem is that a survey of public opinion is an inherently subjective measure. How do you make an inference from the results of your public opinion survey to objectively answering the question?

"You seem to be suggesting that the opinion of a panel of self-interested "experts" would be a better measure."

I never suggested any such thing. I suggested collecting objective data that might shed light on the advancement of technology. Things like patents per capita per year, corrected for the subset of patents that produced products that people bought and used. Things like measuring how long it takes for individual technologies to go from invention to early adoption to widespread use. These measurements are objective facts that seem to me to have direct bearing on the question.

"I think a technology's biggest impact is when it first becomes available to anyone, i.e. the government, corporations, "the rich," etc..

You seem to be arguing that improvements in cost, accessibility and convenience are just as important as the initial appearance of a technology."

I guess we do have a fundamental disconnect there. I don't think your assertion makes sense. How can an invention have much impact if it's not widely used? If only a small few have and use a technology, how can any changes it might have on people's lives or society be measured or felt? And how the heck would any technology ever become considered "essential" by the public and make it into your survery if it wasn't widely available to them?

And I'm not arguing that all incremental improvements in technology are "just as important" as it's "initial appearance" but rather that a new technology won't have significant impact on society until it crosses a threshold of widespread availability and adoption. What impact does the telephone have on civilization and communication if only 10 people own one?

Additionally, the widespread adoption of a technology has more potential to drive new inventors to build on it. Once a technology becomes widely available, it drives other people to innovate in order to compete with it, find new uses for it, or create a newer technology that's even better.

"The leap from horse to Model T, I think, is orders of magnitude larger than the jump from Model T to Toyota Camry."

You misunderstand my proposal. It's not measuring the leap from the Model T to the Toyota Camry. It's measuring the time it took from those first prototype automobiles in the late 1800's to the introduction of the Model T, and comparing that to, say the time it took from the first prototype personal computer in the 70's to the widespread availability of PCs.

If we're talking about technology acceleration, the central question is how quickly new technologies are invented, how quickly they become widely adopted, and whether those advancements spur or impede development of new technologies. If more technologies become available faster and get adopted faster, and their use has a measurable effect on how our society functions and/or how people behave, then we can objectively say technology advancement is accelerating.

Why do you think a survey about what people consider "essential" is more able to assess this than actually collecting the facts about which technologies were available at what specific times and tracking how quickly they got adopted?

Maybe a survey of public opinion would be useful for measuring the impact of technologies on people's behavior and day-to-day lives, but that's only part of the picture. You still need to collect all that other objective data to construct a measure of technology acceleration. And I think the question to be asked isn't, what technologies do you consider "essential," but rather what technologies do you actually use day-to-day, and what are you doing differently now with new technologies that you or your parents or your grandparents weren't doing 10, 20, or 50 years ago?

Anonymous said...

Big C,

Only two people, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, "had access to" the first moon landing, but I think it had "significant impact on society."

Big C said...

One counterexample doesn't refute the entire argument. And didn't a significant portion of the impact from the Space Race come from all the new technologies developed from it that eventually made it to widespread use? Things like GPS, sattellite TV, phones, and weather forecasting? I think I did mention measuring how a technology spurs the creation of new technologies is a part of the picture.

I'm saying that you need to look at more than a single survey question to get the whole picture. In order to get an accurate picture of technology acceleration, you need to actually measure the speed of adoption of new technologies, and how quickly they pop up, and combine that with more subjective measures of how technologies have affected society. The first introduction of a technology does have a big impact, but you can't simply ignore additional effects as the technology matures. Those effects are neither trivial nor equivalent for all technologies. Do you have an argument against that?

Anonymous said...

if even technology still in the "experimental" phase count for your technology meter, be fair: you should count also today experimental technology, with all her promises for revolutions, not only user.level one... brain-machine interfaces, cloning, vat-growed food (meat that was never alive, for the joy of vegetarians...), intelligent homes, genetic engineering, bionics, robotics, self-driving vehicles, hyper-rapid mass transit, morphing intelligent materials... all these things have not yet replaced the industrial way of producing things for the common user, because they're still experimental, expensive, and unreliable... like today commonly used technology some decades ago... but the promise of a leap in our standard of living in today experimental technology it's even bigger than the industrial era one... also even more dangerous, but mitigating that will be our and our sons work...