Riots and selfies and exhaustion, oh my!
The Industrial Age has created the impression, prevalent even among the best and brightest, that technological advancement progresses forward and upward, like the Dow, and that whatever tomorrow brings in the other arenas of life, technology will be safely ahead of that which is available today. It’s a common view, backed with nearly two centuries of upward mobility to prove the point.
It’s also wrong.
The kind of wrong that will get people killed should they rely on it being right forever.
Technology, at its core, is the development or refinement that turns the useless into the useful. The wheel is technology. So is the sundial, the long bow, gun powder and horseshoes – all technology that predates the commonly accepted demarcation between The Age of We’re Awesome and Everything Else.
Propounding the common contemporary view of the Onward and Upward technological progress scale is a combination of myopia, wishful thinking and a poverty of the imagination.
One of the most clearly articulated proponents of an ascending state of technological development is organic chemistry professor Eamonn Healy. At the core of one of his more prolific lectures, Healy expounds on the telescoping nature of “evolution”, by which he means technology. He points out that it took Man 100,000 years to develop language, 10,000 years to develop tools, 5,000 years to develop agriculture and mercantile trade, 1,000 years to develop advanced industry, 100 years to develop powered transit such as cars and airplanes, 50 years to get to the Moon, 20 years to develop mass media, 5 years to put global communication into your pocket, and so on until we’re all cyborgs “evolving” by the minute, every minute.
Anyone paying even moderate attention to the time scales employed may want to take issue with the massive gaps left undiscussed – ask the Greeks how close to the Singularity they were when the Romans absconded with the next rung on their techno-telescope.
Instead of traversing a one-directional trend line, technological development takes place in cyclical phases in conjunction with a number of complementary and competitive forces – at its most simple, there is an inventive phase, an adaptive phase, a refinement phase and an exhaustion phase.
Guess where we are.
Tech phases, like the phases of grief, can occur in succession or with overlap, and they work on both the macro and micro scale, affecting the breadth and depth of civilization and the lone workshop tinkerer in like manner.
The inventive phase is borne out of the confluence of need and knowledge in the small window where ideas, talent and institutional expertise all line up to allow the creation of something new from nothing at all; where the road map of discovery heads off over the hill to a different horizon. The incandescent light bulb; the internal combustion engine; the nuclear reactor – all are invented, pioneering technologies that could not have been successfully developed in any other environment. It wasn’t enough to just have the idea, nor just the means to bring it to fruition, nor just the prevailing layer of foundational understanding just under the surface of each invention’s development. All of these had to come to a head before the invention could be created. The inventive phase is where true genius resides, but as I’ll illustrate shortly, it’s no place you’ll want to hang your hat. It is not, as one might guess, the pinnacle of human achievement or existence. It’s usually a rough frontier dominated by widespread malaise, besieged with more problems than solutions, but where enough groundwork has been laid for the intellectual and material creation of new things.
The adaptive phase is where the fruits of the inventive phase begin to disseminate, where wider understanding of the new technologies leads to other complementary developments and ideas, where the new technologies are adapted for widespread application and are brought to market. It’s one thing to invent the incandescent light bulb; it’s another thing entirely to reach the first point where 50 of them are in every home across the known world. As the new technologies spread, and the complementary and supplemental technologies arise, more people across the spectrum will understand not only the new tech, but the mechanics and principles that underlie it, and they will begin applying that understanding in new ways to further adapt the technology and incorporate it into the body of the civic order.
The people living and working in the adaptive phase are at most only removed from the progenitors of the inventive phase by a single generation; most if not all of the knowledge and context that sparked and fueled the inventive phase makes the jump to the adaptive phase. In the transition between the adaptive and refinement phases, the civic order is humming along and the future looks about as bright as it ever will. Per Healy, this phase would never end. But tell me, what institution of human creation never ended?
The refinement phase is the period where many to most of the people in a civic order are at least two generations removed from the inventive phase, where supplemental and complementary knowledge begins to fall away in small then large pieces over time. In this phase, the talent and ingenuity of the civic order dedicates itself to refining the fruits of invention and adaptation, then refining the refinements, refining those refinements to the refinements, and so on, until Bell’s telephone fits in your pocket, takes pictures, and curiously sends, basically, telegrams.
Most of these refinements are useful, and help shape a more comfortable existence. Yet the refinement phase sows one of the necessary seeds for decline, as focus shifts from forward-thinking creativity to navel-gazing maintenance. This shift is caused by, then reinforces, the continuing loss of fundamental knowledge, not even just for the inventions and adaptations, but for earlier generations of refinements. For example, take the aforementioned internal combustion engine. This miracle of human ingenuity has been around for countless generations. From the time of its inception, then adaptation, the engine has undergone an unfathomably, astronomically high number of refinements, refinements to the refinements, and refinements to the refinements of the refinements. So much so, that much of the knowledge of the underlying earlier refinements is nearly lost. Take a car from the 1960s with a distributor featuring breaker points into your local auto repair shop, and watch in amusement as the Highly Trained, ASE-quadruple-certified technicians stare in bewilderment at the thing, trying to figure out where the port is to connect the computer analyzer.
Finally, the exhaustion phase is the point where the possible refinements to existing technologies have been accomplished, and where further refinement to those technologies actually begins to retard** the usefulness and efficacy of the underlying inventions and adaptations. Again, I point to the contemporary cell phone that is essentially a slick grab bag of 19th century technologies – telephone, telegraph and camera. This is the phase where every “new” idea has been heard 10 times before; where every seeming advance is merely a re-packaged gimmick of previous accomplishments.
This phase is as important as any other, because it’s the point in the technology cycle where new needs and problems are legitimately identified, and where the bravely imaginative begin to turn their backs once again away from the tide, toward a forward direction where dormant problem solving skills begin developing the theoretical underpinnings of the next round of inventions.
Now, none of this occurs in a vacuum, and these phases compel and bend to economic, political, social and demographic forces. The interwoven phases of each of these forces, as they play out, determine the onset, subsidence, the severity and the flavor of each phase upon the civic order.
Next up, a short primer on Economics.
* Wait till you see how long the actual sections discussing each one of these are. I may just need an editor when all is said and done
** Someone had to say it