Top Technologies

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

The January 2011 issue of IEEE Spectrum (a magazine for electrical engineers) named the Top 11 Technologies of the Decade.  The list thus focuses on electrical gadgets – some technological breakthroughs (such as in composite materials, nanotechnology, or new pharmaceuticals) do not make the cut, even if significant. 

Some of the top 11 choices are indeed amazing technological feats, but they really have not made a noticeable difference in our lives.  For example, number 11 is the Class-D Audio Amplifier.  It provides high fidelity audio with high efficiency at a low cost – a rare trifecta that optimizes three goals at once.  Even so, this technology is mostly behind the scenes, so while the manufacturers and certain experts are impressed by the novelty of this new technology, it has not made a significant difference in the day-to-day lives of most people. It has not shifted social patterns or created new communities.  Similarly, Voice Over IP (number 3) offers a radically different underlying technological infrastructure for telephony, but the end consumer might not even realize the change.  The phone itself might not look much different and it simply seems to be just one more choice in the panoply of telephones.

Some of the top 11 choices are amazing technology but they have also entered our collective consciousness.  Most of us are aware of the increased sophistication of drone aircraft (number 7) and many have noticed the new traffic lights, flashlights, and automobile rear brake lights that have all gotten the “dotted” look from new high-efficiency LEDs (number 4).  While we may have noticed these new devices, they have not made a big difference in our day-to-day lives either.

Some of the top 11 choices are amazing technology, have caught the attention of the public, and furthermore, have created new social dynamics, changing our day-to-day lives.  Digital photography (number 10) has made casual pictures of almost everything and everyone extremely easy and low cost (per picture).  This has changed how we share our lives, how we recall our personal history and family stories, and even changed our expectations for privacy and anonymity.  Social networking (number 2) and smartphones (number 1) have changed how we communicate and interact with the world and with the community.  These technologies have changed the way significant portions of the population spend their time, changed how they behave in certain social situations, and perhaps even started to impact social norms and expectations.

These top 10 (or 11 in this case) lists are always fun to pick apart and think about.  I can tick off a few other technologies that perhaps should have also made the list and question a few that could be omitted.  Interestingly, in this case and in other articles on top technologies, the author usually extols the benefits and positive impact of the technology with little consideration of the drawbacks or negative impact.  Perhaps that is for fear that the readership interested in technological advances might label such an author as a Luddite trying to impede “progress.”  However, is it not important for us to examine new technologies critically and collectively – especially when those technologies are gaining widespread use and changing our social fabric?  If one starts from a faith-based worldview, then technology is not an autonomous nor neutral force.  It is a facet of our culture and society, and thus a part of our world that ultimately belongs to God.  Seen in that light, should we be proud of this list of top technologies for the decade?

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest