Tuesday, July 05, 2005
John Derbyshire started a discussion today in The Corner about the rate of innovation. Has it slowed?
I think it's very hard to know how to properly measure these things. I look at my own job, and essentially nothing that I do during the day was even conceivable 50 years ago, to say nothing of 100 years ago, because of the massive computational power involved. The world of finance has been almost completely transformed, and the transformation has more to do with computing power than it does with regulatory, social or economic change. How do you scale that kind of wholesale transformation with, say, the invention of the steam engine?
The 19th century saw a number of massive technological innovations, from the railroad to the telegraph, whose impact on the structure of human life was manifest. The technological revolutions of the 20th century, and particularly the latter part of the 20th century - in computation, in medicine (medicine as we understand it virtually didn't exist in 1900), in agriculture (the "green revolution" is a late-20th-century phenomenon, and is still progressing apace) - have not similarly altered the wholesale landscape, nor have they as radically changed our life (although a case could be made for the birth-control pill).
Further, many of the innovations we've seen are incremental changes in existing industries. Last night we watched the fireworks from our window (we have a great view of lower Manhattan - in fact, if you positioned yourself just right, you could see all 3 fireworks locations: the Statue of Liberty, downtown, and the East River). Now, fireworks technology has been around for what, 800 year? 1000? I forget. But it has clearly taken a significant leap forward in the past few years: more complicated color arrangements, fireworks that explode into 5-pointed stars, concentric circles, smiley faces, hearts, successive waves of color from the same firework - I half expected them to produce a 50-star American flag in fireworks. And I'm sure the reason why the fireworks are so much more impressive now is computing power, the ability to shape the charge with very high precision and so forth.
This kind of computer-based innovation has transformed all sorts of industries, from steelmaking to filmmaking. It may appear to make much less difference in our daily life, but that's partly a matter of the incremental nature of this innovation. The invention of the telephone was a big, big deal. But the telephone took a long time to impact our daily life. The invention of the optical diffusion grating, which massively expands the bandwidth of fiber-optic cable, was a pretty big deal, but all telephone users would notice is that telephony has become progressively more ubiquitous. Or think of all the advances in military technology since World War II. A soldier from Henry V's army would probably have been completely lost in the Napoleonic Wars. But a conscript from Napoleon's time would, I suspect, have found his footing (after considerable adjustment, to be sure) in Patton's army. I suspect, though, that that same Napoleonic soldier would be quite lost in today's military. That transformation happened gradually, though, so we haven't noticed in the way that we noticed the invention of the atom bomb.
Another point: many of the most transformative innovations of the 19th century were the fruit of advances in pure science that had taken place much earlier. The early 20th century advances in physics - quantum mechanics, primarily - have only begun to have technological applications (the laser is the big one everyone knows about). Are we going to see an explosion of new applications in the next few decades? It's pretty foolish to predict. One thing we can say: quantum mechanics is a lot more complicated, and also a lot more fundamental to the structure of the universe. As we figure out more applications, they'll similarly be accessing "deeper" stuff than the old electricity-and-combustion stuff. This is why new technological developments seem more and more like magic (which might be another reason we barely notice them, and assume a visitor from the past wouldn't notice them as well). Mechanical processes are readily comprehensible. Mechanical processes with really strong engines behind them are just as readily comprehensible, if you put aside the engine, and our visitor from 1900 to 1950 contemplating an aircraft carrier might be inclined to do just that. But some of our more recent inventions in pharmacology, computing, etc. would seem a lot eerier.
So I think it's a bit of a mugs game to try to figure out whether innovation is slowing down or not. What's clear is that it's changed its character. Knowledge has advanced far enough that a Ben Franklin is bound to be much rarer in our day than in his, and an Aristotle is outright inconceivable. We've mapped out enough of the universe that what remains is increasingly the province of specialists. This has certainly impoverished our culture, and it may well have steered our innovation into the well-worn channels where incremental progress can be made. My own guess, though, is that what's been lost is the culture of the Anglo-Saxon inventor, and that the pace of innovation has not appreciably slackened.