Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Pace of Change

From this article: Is Science Really Moving Faster Than Ever? (Slate)
This truism that the “pace of innovation” is speeding up is pretty widely accepted. You get things like a former FTC commissioner (and deputy commerce secretary), the deliciously named Orson Swindle, arguing that technological innovation now happens so quickly, we don’t need to worry about antitrust policy. A New York Times article about iPhones made in China cites business leaders in a throwaway line: “The pace of innovation, say executives from a variety of industries, has been quickened by businessmen like Mr. Jobs.” The Wall Street Journal simply posits “today’s increased pace of technological change.”

All this talk of an increased pace of innovation or technological change gets to me because it is used (by people like Swindle) to claim technology will eliminate the need to make hard choices. More generally, if change is faster now than ever before, it gives us license to dismiss the lessons of history as being inapplicable.
To speak meaningfully of living in a period of abnormally fast change, we need to have some meaningful (if rough) measure of how quickly science is really moving. And I don't think we do. These things are just incommensurate. How does the development of Facebook compare with that of the telephone? The Times article likens new iPhone models to new car models, which is comparing Apples with Camaros. The first trans-Atlantic telegraph was a sea change in a way that few later developments have been: All of the sudden, these lands that had been sundered by weeks could communicate near-instantaneously.
Some interesting back-and-forth here in a series of articles. One point made early on is that science is not neutral; it can be directed to various ends by other forces - the government, the economy, etc. Thus, much of the blame placed on science is better actually directed at how our society chooses to deploy it (in service of greater returns on profits to capital). But the point above that trying to measure absolute "innovation" is rather silly, since there is no reference point is well made. We're "innovating" to satisfy needs we didn't have twenty years ago, and to fix problems we didn't have a hundred years ago. Is that really innovation at all? The most fundamental transformative changes probably have already happened, and many of them have made out lives worse, not better. If the purpose of technology is to reduce drudgery, increase leisure time, and make us healthier and happier people, we're already well past the peak of that, and are getting more unhealthy and have less leisure time as we go forward. And if that's not the purpose, well then, what is?

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