Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Technological Progress

Fascinating article on Slate: Why Has 99 Percent of the Technological Progress by Modern Humans Come in the Last 10,000 Years?
Innovation/Invention requires a lot of trial and error and the ability to build on previous results. Until a few thousand years ago, these experiments were local, and there was little we could learn from others' experiments. Thus, a guy in Ethiopia might have been trying to master fire control even 5,000 years after a guy in Sweden has already mastered it. There was no easy way to transfer ideas given the lack of wheel (to enable quick movement), writing systems, broadcast communication, etc. The population was also too low to improve the odds of experimentation.
Lastly, we were too focused on survival to afford us the time to innovate. Agriculture liberated us from the focus on the daily search for food. Finally, we are constantly discovering more about our past, and our knowledge of our ancestors is not complete. A hundred years ago, we didn't know about the magnificent Indus Valley civilization and knew little of Mesopotamia or Incas. New discoveries are constantly pushing back the known history, and I would not be surprised if we discover more complex civilizations from 10000 BC that have just been lost due to the passage of time.
The answers are obvious: compounding, increasing population and communication technologies, etc. I would also recommend reading the first part about compounding with an eye to why every country is in debt right now.This is also the justification used (in my opinion, incorrectly) to argue for the "singularity" - that technological progress will become infinite.

I'd take issue with a couple of things in the second answer, however (besides the value judgement implied by the term 'progress'). #4: There is evidence for human use of fire for over 1 million years. The debate rages (like a fire) as to whether human fire use was intentional or opportunistic, but I think Richard Wrangham's hypothesis is compelling. 3# is horribly overstated. Apparently, the writer didn't bother to read his own link, which states that life expectancy of adults (after surviving childhood diseases) was 54 in the Upper Paleolithic.

I'd also point out that we've had to innovate ever faster, because we kept causing problems with earlier innovations. Agricuture led to increasing populations, which led to irrigation and the need for sanitation, etc. Increasing populations led to more wars leading to military arms races, etc.

See also: Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age


  1. That life expectancy misunderstanding is a major pet peeve of mine. This is why we should use the Median instead of Mean for some things.

  2. Me too.

    I liken it to height. My guess is, if we were to take the “average” height for all males in a society, it would be about 4 feet or so. Why? Because a significant portion of the males in any society are babies or children. How tall is a baby? A four-year-old? A twelve-year old? It would skew the numbers dramatically. And if you have a population where there lots of children and young people, which was the case in older times thanks to high birth rates, the “average” height would be even lower than a society with more adults, such as modern, Western nations.

    Armed with this information, we would walk around and expect to see a society of Pygmies. Where are all the four foot tall men? After all, that is the “average” height of males in our hypothetical society. Yet, looking around, we see no such thing. I think we recognize the absurdity of this approach. Yet this is exactly what we do when we talk about life spans in ancient times!!!

    What is the reason for this deliberate obfuscation? Why is it so often repeated, such that people are brainwashed to think everyone dropped dead at age thirty before the Industrial Revolution? The only thing I can think of, and this sounds conspiratorial, is that the idea that we’re better off must be constantly reinforced by any means necessary. In fact, both the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions dramatically decreased lifespans and health in their immediate aftermath. And our longer lifespans today are the result of better diet and sanitation measures which were virulently opposed by the social elites:


    Also, keep in mind, that without modern allopathic medicine, that age of 54 meant that people were healthy all the way up to the time they died. Today, our statistics are skewed because we are able to keep people alive and sick for decades with a combination of high-tech machines (dialysis, breathing tubes, pacemakers, etc.) and massive doses of drugs. Is that really better? I’ve spent time in hospitals, and when you see these decaying, suffering, sick people kept alive for years and years by heroic measures, you can’t help but wonder if this is truly “progress.”

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