The End of Technology

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

A colleague at DornerWorks, Rick Bemmann, recently mentioned that he believed technology development has been slowing down—to the point we may be reaching the end of new development.  There is some evidence for his hypothesis.  The added features in the next cell phone to come out are quite minimal when compared to the sea change we experienced when the first cell phone unchained us from a land line.  The final space shuttle flight slightly more than 40 years after the first moon landing (and 50 after Sputnik) was a bittersweet end of an era—many of us technology geeks who lived during the early years of man’s ventures into space had grand visions of human exploration of the outer space beyond our planet.  Today that vision is much reduced, if not extinguished.  The horseless carriage introduced a century ago was a game-changer technology that revolutionized society.  A hundred years later, our automobiles might look a bit different, but relatively speaking, they are rather similar to the Ford Model-T when compared to a horse.  The performance has not improved all that much either.  The Model-T got up to 21 miles per gallon (Ford Media ), right on par with the average mileage of modern vehicles.  Air travel is much faster than automobile, train, or ship, but the latest aircraft offers little more than the previous generation—perhaps you now have WiFi on board.  On the whole, it does appear that we have plateaued.  The dramatic pace of development we have seen in the last century seems to have slowed to a trickle.

This same theme of diminishing returns appears in an opinion piece titled “Taking Innovation for Granted” (Philip E. Ross, IEEE Spectrum, January 2012), also available as “Don’t Let Innovation Languish”.  Ross alludes to an earlier book, The Great Stagnation , by Tyler Cowen, which makes the point that most of our recent innovations have simply been revisions on earlier inventions, little knock-offs that make small, incremental improvements. 

I have also hinted as this slow-down in a blog last year, “Beautiful Challenges”.  However, I also pointed out that there are plenty of big challenges yet for us to tackle.  I regularly spur my engineering students to consider the really tough problems, to make a difference in the world with the technology they develop.  I want to see engineers and scientists going after world hunger and providing clean drinking water to all.  I don’t think we should settle for hybrid vehicles that get only marginally better mileage than their traditional gas engine counterparts.  Let’s continue to seek new drugs and medicines to reduce disease and suffering—including cautious use of genetic engineering.  We can accelerate our research on renewable energy sources.  I’d like to see convenient light rail inside more cities and high-speed rail between more of them.  I’d like to see more foods on the grocery shelves that taste great but are actually healthy too.  I’d like to see stronger protection of electronic data to prevent identity theft. 

However, I’m no technicist.  Technology is no panacea.  My own experience tells me so.  I’ve lost important files in a computer crash, I’ve been stranded with a car that wouldn’t start, and I’ve had to throw away spoiled food when our deep freezer failed.  Our societal experience also tells me that technology is no savior.  The last century has seen incredible technological innovation, but also terrible destruction.  For example, nuclear power has helped ease our dependence on oil and reduced our pollution of the atmosphere, but we have also seen the dark side of this powerful energy source in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukishima.  Another example is our increased use of disposable packaging, resulting in mountains of garage in landfills that doesn’t decay as fast as we pile it on. 

Our Christian faith also tells me that technology is no savior.  God calls us to trust in him, not in our own strength, nor our own wealth, nor idols, nor military might.  That doesn’t mean we cannot use technology, simply that it should not be our ultimate foundation nor an end in itself.  So are we reaching the end of technology?  No, I think we are simply in a temporary lull.  Such a pause can serve a useful purpose, allowing us to take stock of the technology we now have at our disposal and consider the end of technology in a different light—what is the goal, the “end” to which we will put these tools? 

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest