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Has the Rate of Technical Progress Slowed? 712

Amiga Trombone writes "An article in the IEEE Spectrum argues that the rate of technological progress has slowed in the last 50 years. While there have been advances in areas such as computers, communications and medicine, etc., the author points out that these advances have largely been incremental rather than revolutionary. He contrasts the progress made within the life-span of his grandmother (1880-1960) with that in his own (1956-present). Having been born the year after the author, I've noticed this, too. While certainly we've produced some useful refinements, little of the technology available today would have surprised me much had I been able to encounter it in 1969. While some of it has been implemented in surprising ways, the technology itself had largely been anticipated."
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Has the Rate of Technical Progress Slowed?

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  • Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

    by corsec67 ( 627446 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @07:55AM (#29283499) Homepage Journal

    Where is my flying car?

    Honestly, in a few ways we might be considered to be going backwards:
    I have seen the end of supersonic passenger aircraft (for the time being, with no resumption in sight).

    The last time man was on the moon was before I was born.

    • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

      by courteaudotbiz ( 1191083 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:01AM (#29283541) Homepage
      Well, this is all linked to economy...
      • Supersonic flight costs a lot more than subsonic
      • Flights to the moon cost a lot of money and you don't make a penny out of it

      This is obvious that progress alone does not drive decisions. Money does.

      As for your flying car, you'll start seeing it when we have drivers who can safely drive on 3 dimensional roads, and for that, you have to be able to do it safely on 2 dimensional roads first, which can be far, far away...

      • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

        by biryokumaru ( 822262 ) * <> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:11AM (#29283605)
        I would contend that it is much simpler to avoid accidents in three dimensions than two: you have significantly more options should a collision be imminent.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by GigsVT ( 208848 )

          You are assuming equal freedom on every axis.

          An airplane can use climb or dive quickly, or bank, and that's pretty much it. And none of those operations can really be done on a dime.

          • by CarpetShark ( 865376 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:37AM (#29283823)

            An airplane can use climb or dive quickly, or bank, and that's pretty much it. And none of those operations can really be done on a dime.

            You're flying in the wrong mode. Switch to arcade.

          • That's why I drive a personal SU-37. []
          • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:03AM (#29284149) Homepage


            Planes can go down for free, everything else costs money.

            Diving, falling and crashing are all free. It's expensive as hell to get it up there in the first place.

          • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

            by JWSmythe ( 446288 ) <jwsmythe@jws[ ] ['myt' in gap]> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @01:28PM (#29288053) Homepage Journal

            ... or too much freedom on every axis. :)

                Cars are fairly precision instruments. On a 2 lane road, they pass within just a couple feet of each other. They stop within inches at traffic lights.

                I've been designing a hover vehicle (not a traditional hovercraft). It'll probably always be in the design phase, but it's fun. One of the things I've seen mentioned a lot is the fact that any vehicle that doesn't have physical contact with the surface (i.e., tires on the road or keel in the water) can drift. On a banked or crowned road, a GEV can tend to float downhill if it's thrust is simply down, or off the top of a turn. A strong breeze can make it drift off in unexpected ways. Heck, in a tall vehicle, you get that with road vehicles too. Take a regular passenger van out during a Florida summer thunderstorm, and you may find yourself suddenly in the wrong lane, even though you were aimed straight.

                A GEV tend to not respond to immediate stops quite as well either.

                I intended to computerize a substantial portion of my stability control. Use of ultrasonic sensors to determine distance from the 4 corners should keep it flat in relationship to the road. Other sensors would sense drift outside of what the controls were doing. For example, if it sensed drift to the left or right without input from the driver, that would obviously be an error, and correct for it. It may be a breeze, or sliding down a banked turn. Even still, by using directed thrust (forced air), that would significantly impact other vehicles on the road. If my vehicle detected a slip to the right, and engaged it's right side thrusters to correct, if a vehicle was to the right it would push them to the right.

                I thought it would be nice to have a vehicle hop over an immediate danger (impending accident, etc). That's fine and dandy if I'm by myself on the 3d road. What happens when I'm doing 60mph and hop over an accident, but the GEV behind me doing 80mph does the same thing. Now we've added a pile on top of the existing accident.

                In reality, drivers don't do so well on 2d roads. While 3d roads could reduce traffic density, it would create many new problems. Hell, I've been hit by drivers making simple lane changes because they weren't aware that my car was there. They can't look left to make a lane change to the left. What happens when you add above and below to the equation.

                There's good reasons pilots go through so much extra training, and it's not all because the vehicles are complicated. And yes, I've gone through flight school and flown. At flight school, I witnessed a near miss, because a student pilot with instructor, who had called his turns perfectly and announced his intention to land was coming down to the runway. Another (non-student) pilot taxied out onto the runway in front of him. I was on my downwind. He was on his final. We both saw him taxi out, luckily. It wasn't complicated. We all used the same radio frequency (freq for the uncontrolled tower), and there was only one active runway. Even if the other pilot didn't have a radio (not required), he was required to look and make sure it was safe to taxi out. I don't know how you miss another aircraft a few hundred feet out, with his landing lights on, unless you were just oblivious. There were 3 or 4 of us in the pattern, so it wasn't difficult to figure out someone may be landing very soon.

        • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Lord Bitman ( 95493 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:28AM (#29283747) Homepage

          Though there's this whole class of accidents which come about when a 3rd dimension is involved. "Stalled vehicle on highway, traffic backed up for ten miles, delayed for fifty miles, more minor accidents as a result of the start and stop flow" becomes "Stalled vehicle on highway, traffic continues to move smoothly. Hundreds dead as stalled vehicle crashes into St Baby Fluffy Kitten's home for dyslexic cute animals during a field trip from the Orphanage For The Quite Uninteresting But Still Adorable (OFQUBSA)"

          • Or simply (Score:3, Insightful)

            by coryking ( 104614 ) *

            Joe runs out of gas and drops 3,000 ft into local celebrity's swimming pool.

            I mean, people run out of gas all the time. People don't maintain their vehicles as well as they should. What happens when there is a mechanical failure. Planes don't fall out of the sky that often because there are fewer of them per-capita than cars. Plus they are far more tightly regulated than your vehicle.

            Flying cars will never happen. We will invent the teleportation device first.

            • Re: Flying Cars (Score:3, Interesting)

              by TaoPhoenix ( 980487 )

              RIP SF Age, but you're right no flying cars, except Trek Transporters won't happen either.

              Instead of a flying car, I'd almost see a "3d Subway". There operators run the grid. Essentially, Subway cars don't crash.

              In all seriousness, getting to work would be like solving a rubik's puzzle. (up/left/forward/down/forward/left/forward)

            • Re:Or simply (Score:5, Insightful)

              by Lord Bitman ( 95493 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @12:03PM (#29286745) Homepage

              To negate that argument:
              1) Computer controlled
              2) Ride-sharing

              No need to "own" a vehicle. Pay the price of a cab fare, be driven to where you want to go, "cab" is flown back and maintained by Someone Who Wants To Not Kill His Customers.

        • Re:Flying Car (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Runaway1956 ( 1322357 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:22AM (#29284393) Homepage Journal

          I would argue that the same idiots who use rear view mirrors to apply makeup, never check the oil, and can't tell that a tire is flat will just find new ways to kill people while texting on their cellphone or playing the newest popular game on their laptop.

          Has history taught us nothing? Morons who couldn't walk and chew bubblegum were handed car keys, and the result was carnage. Today, you wish to see the grandsons and granddaughters of those same morons zipping through the sky over your house?

          I'm probably talking to one of those grandsons.....

        • Re:Flying Car (Score:4, Interesting)

          by borgasm ( 547139 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @02:59PM (#29289477) Journal

          Ah yes, the "Big Sky, Small Airplane" theory.

          Many pilots subscribe to this theory, and if you do out the numbers, it makes sense.

          In my personal flying, I have seen enough contradictions to this theory, that I do not believe it, nor should you.

      • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

        by necro81 ( 917438 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:21AM (#29283697) Journal

        As for your flying car, you'll start seeing it when we have drivers who can safely drive on 3 dimensional roads, and for that, you have to be able to do it safely on 2 dimensional roads first, which can be far, far away...

        Not to mention a flying car that can fail safe, so that a mechanical mishap or minor accident doesn't prove invariably fatal from, ya know, falling out of the sky.

        • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

          by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:42AM (#29284637)

          As for your flying car, you'll start seeing it when we have drivers who can safely drive on 3 dimensional roads, and for that, you have to be able to do it safely on 2 dimensional roads first, which can be far, far away...

          Not to mention a flying car that can fail safe, so that a mechanical mishap or minor accident doesn't prove invariably fatal from, ya know, falling out of the sky.

          You mean the way it does with small single-engine airplanes today?

          In small general aviation craft, an engine failure, electrical failure, or mechanical failure is frequently a serious emergency, with potentially fatal consequences. However, unless you're doing something seriously stupid, a competent pilot is very likely to survive a rather large subset of such failures — basically anything excluding "wings fall off". Landing with engine out is expected; it only gets really interesting if there isn't a runway or suitable road within glide range. Handling the airplane with mechanical or electrical malfunctions is something flight instructors routinely test on (you can simulate a rather large range of electrical failures by pulling fuses, for example).

          There are plenty of reasons there aren't flying cars; safety in response to malfunctions is certainly on the list. But that does not even remotely mean that an engine failure has to be a fatal problem.

          • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Informative)

            by dachshund ( 300733 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @04:51PM (#29291187)

            You mean the way it does with small single-engine airplanes today? In small general aviation craft, an engine failure, electrical failure, or mechanical failure is frequently a serious emergency, with potentially fatal consequences. However, unless you're doing something seriously stupid, a competent pilot is very likely to survive a rather large subset of such failures -- basically anything excluding "wings fall off".

            To extend your logical argument, then we don't need to develop flying cars --- we already have them. They're called "single-engine airplanes". Put some road wheels on them and you're done.

            However, in practice the concepts are quite different. The canonical "flying car" is expected to be much smaller and maneuverable than an airplane, piloted by a non-expert, capable of flying in a much more crowded environment, and most importantly should not require the use of long runways (ideally it should have VTOL capability). Unfortunately, it's precisely these characteristics that militate against the safety characteristics you describe.

            And even without those extreme requirements, small airplanes still get in plenty of trouble.

      • by wstrucke ( 876891 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:45AM (#29283901)

        Well, this is all linked to economy...

        • Supersonic flight costs a lot more than subsonic
        • Flights to the moon cost a lot of money and you don't make a penny out of it

        This is obvious that progress alone does not drive decisions. Money does.

        So what you're saying is... in reality we are the Ferengi [].

      • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Salgak1 ( 20136 ) <salgak AT speakeasy DOT net> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:15AM (#29284311) Homepage
        I would like to suggest a single root cause: The Plague of Lawyers.

        Think about it: Liability alone has decimated the light-aircraft industry, imagine what it would do to manufacturers of flying cars. And International Law, such as the UN Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty effectively prevents private efforts, as it seriously impedes private enterprise in space.

        I'll at least argue this over the cold beverage of an opponents' choice. . .

        • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @12:36PM (#29287237)

          Energy density

          Thje period in question marks the switch from coal to oil power.

          Human progress follows the energy curve, which is something the singularity muppets don't seem to get.
          You want a flying car? You need something with a damned site more energy than oil... Before it runs out.

          Progress has slowed because we're getting about as good as it gets at extracting work from oil. Get back to 100:1 EROEI (Mr. Fusion) or more and we'll see much faster progress.

      • Re:Flying Car (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Remus Shepherd ( 32833 ) <> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:02AM (#29284871) Homepage

        Similar arguments were thrown at the automobile. "Oh, it'll be viable when we have roads that don't bounce the carriage enough to daze the passengers," and "it'll be viable when it's not a danger to every horse and cow in the field", and "they go too fast -- 20 mph is too dangerous".

        What happened is that we became less averse to the risks of the automobile, and more willing to build our infrastructure around it because of the benefit it offered.

        Right now, our society is extremely risk-adverse and lawsuit-happy. We already have a transportation infrastructure, and a flying car both does not fit it nor would it give us much more than what we have.

        There are only two chances for the flying car to become popular. It could be a bit hit in a country with no transportation infrastructure, like some African countries, where they can't move cars around but would be able to find discreet landing spots here and there. Or it could be useful after our infrastructure is destroyed in a war. Note that in both scenarios, people will be more willing to take risks...

    • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

      by itsdapead ( 734413 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:26AM (#29283725)

      I have seen the end of supersonic passenger aircraft (for the time being, with no resumption in sight).

      The last time man was on the moon was before I was born.

      I think what both of those have in common is that, although they were astounding technical achievements, they were both unsustainable "gimmicks" driven by political pissing contests rather than by any actual demand.

      The progress we do have is that we've sent robot probes to most of the solar system (good) and subsonic air travel now costs less than rail travel (maybe not so good). Don't undervalue these.

      Oh, and we have vastly improved inflight entertainment systems to keep us sane on subsonic flights :-)

      • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

        by hkmarks ( 1080097 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:44AM (#29284659)

        That's it exactly -- it's about demand.

        There's very little demand for faster computers and flying cars... I mean, we want them, sure, but the value we put on incremental improvements now is a lot less.

        The focus of R&D has shifted from big, visible, obvious everyday things like car engines, colour TVs, and transistor radios onto finicky, small, non-consumer items like nanotechnology, gene therapy, advanced surgical techniques, robotics, and new materials. I mean, I am blown away by something new practically every day. Haven't there been two different cures for two types of blindness reported in the past few weeks, one using lasers and one using gene therapy? Then there was that nanomaterial that is supposed to make windshield scrapers obsolete. Bring it on!

        It's just that we've done most of the big obvious stuff. Even when we haven't fully deployed it (renewable power, for instance) we've pretty much got the technology down.

        Robots and augmented reality are probably going to be the next big game-changers, but the complexity of technology they require means they are going to be slow to deploy and improve. I mean, many people already have a GPS and a Roomba.

        Either that or we need to brainstorm and come up with something that not a single SF author has anticipated. And you know the odds of that at this point...

      • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

        by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @12:31PM (#29287175)

        they were both unsustainable "gimmicks" driven by political pissing contests rather than by any actual demand.

        I suspect that the biggest issue Concorde faced was that it wasn't allowed to go super sonic anywhere near land.

        Keep in mind that London to New York could be done in about 3½ hours (fastest is 2:52:59 from tarmac to tarmac) for a 5,585 km flight. New York to Los Angeles is 3,961 km so you'd expect something like 2:45 for that trip. Los Angeles to Tokyo is 8,830 km so you'd expect a 6 hour flight there. Since the plane is faster than the time zones, you could leave LAX at 10 AM for a 9 AM meeting in Tokyo. Currently the flight alone is 11 hours, and with time zones etc. you're probably looking at something like an 18 hour flight (i.e. leaving at 3 pm the day before). And do you really want to go into an all day meeting right after having spent the last 11 hours in an air plane? Six hours is more manageable. That's a small nap, a movie, and a quick shower and change of clothes.

        And the Concorde was almost as efficient [] as a Gulfstream G550 business jet [] which is almost 30 years older.

        At this time the Concorde design is more than 40 years old. The main complaint about it was noise, even though aircraft like the Boeing VC-137 [] were louder. One would think that 40 years of additional engine and aircraft design would allow you to reduce not only take-off and landing noise, but also that of the sonic booms, allowing for super sonic flights over land as well. And there have recent experiments and designs [] targeted at reducing the sonic boom. As it turns out those experiments points to how to make the Concorde a viable super sonic transport over land areas as well.

        So, no - that's not political pissing contests driving development, but political pressure (justified or not) holding development back.

        Let's dream up some numbers - imagine you were able to create a viable Concorde v.2010. It's more fuel efficient than the original, so let's up the 17 passenger miles/gallon to 22. That's a 30% improvement through better materials (lighter plane), better aerodynamic design and better engine. This is about 4.1 times worse than a Boeing 747-400 [].

        At the moment a one way ticket (JFK - LAX) booked 14 days in advance is about 300 dollars for a morning flight. The flight is about 6 hours, but only about 3½ hours when you factor in the time difference (but about 9 hours going the other way). I don't fly in the US, so I just used United [] as my reference.

        Enter the above mentioned Concorde v.2010. 3 hour flight time (on the plane), so if you have to be at LAX by 9 AM, you can leave JFK at 9 AM as well. This is currently only doable if you book a hotel at the other end or take a 5 AM flight from New York. To be in New York at 9 AM, you'd have to catch a red-eye or book a hotel the night before. This doesn't change with Concorde v.201, unless you want to leave on a 3 AM flight out of LAX with a Concorde (3 hour flight time, 3 hour time difference).

        The afternoon flights are just as good. At the moment JFK - LAX would have you landing in LAX in the middle of the night, and LAX - JFK are even worse. For the Concorde v.2010 you'd be looking at a 6 pm flight out and arriving at JFK around midnight, or landing in LAX at slightly earlier than you left JFK.

        So now, not only do you get to your destination about 2½ times faster, you also save the cost of hotels, AND you get to have all day meetings on different sides of the continent without it ruining the previous and following day.

        From a business perspective it'd easily be worth a 10 fold ticket price. Compare 3,000 dollars as a singl

    • Re:Flying Car (Score:4, Insightful)

      by 4D6963 ( 933028 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:44AM (#29283899)

      It's not because what you expected didn't happen that things are going slower. People always make wild predictions, they fail to happen, and something that they had never thought about happens instead. Sorry, no flying car for you, here, have a multiplayer game of GTA IV with some a bunch of foreigners, or download and watch a movie with your pocket telephone.

      Fast forward 30 years later: "Oh noes, we're nowhere near getting our Skynet/Singularity. You suck, ghost of Kurzweil! (Oh yeah, in the future we're totally getting devices to communicate with spirits, space aliens and other ethereal beings. You heard it here first!)"

    • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

      by orignal ( 10769 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:47AM (#29283931)

      What about stem cell research? Growing back teeth, nerve tissue. Maybe we should look at more than gizmos, cars and electronics. Biotechnologies have advanced by great leaps in the last decade.

      Tech advances do not need to be consumable goods...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      1969 :
      Concorde first flight - Supersonic passenger aircraft : retired
      Harrier Jump Jet first flight
      Moon Landings : none for the last 38 years
      The internet started

      Worlds fastest production Aircraft : Retired
      Worlds fastest commercial airliner : Retired
      Worlds fastest climbing aircraft : Retired
      Moon rocket : Retired

      Slowing down , I think going backwards would be nearer the mark ....

    • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anne Thwacks ( 531696 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:00AM (#29284103)
      My Grandfather observed "The changes between 1898 and 1914 were incredible - in 1898 we had no cars, planes, phones etc, (almost all transport was horse-drawn, and the rest was steam powered).

      By 1914, we had sheduled international flights all across Europe and cheap Ford cars, phones, BBC radio, etc".

      He observed that besides the technology content of the changes, there was a significant psychological factor:

      By 1914, 1898 was "the last century" - he went on to predict that by 2014, 1998 would be "the last millenium" and things would seem even more old-fashioned. Of course we cannot know the future, but we also cannot know what is currently being developed behind closed doors. Invention is never at a steady pace - and many inventions may come in a single year after five years of no excitement.

      Despite that, there might be a problem:

      All current computers are just re-implementations of the PDP11 archictecture with minor improvements.

      The iPhone is just a smaller version of the Memex predicted by Vannevar Bush []

      Necessity is the mother of all Frank Zappas. Maybe we don't actually need any more stuff! We need the stuff we have to work better! There is enough food, housing and porn to go round! The main thing we really do need is a better system of government.

      • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

        by jedidiah ( 1196 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:10AM (#29284251) Homepage

        If you think progress has slowed down then watch a 50 year old TV show and just
        observe. Note every time you think how the characters could have used some bit
        of technology that we take for granted to their advantage.

        It's as stark as the difference between 1914 and 1898. You've just gotten used to it.

        It's not that progress isn't happening. You're just taking it for granted.

        A tech revolution doesn't seem quite so disruptive anymore.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by TheRaven64 ( 641858 )
        1998 already seems quite antiquated, when you think that back then mobile phones were only just starting to become common, lots of middle-class westerners didn't own computers, there was almost no broadband and lots of people didn't even use dial-up. The Internet had only been opened up to commercial use five years previously. I have a map of the Internet from around that time, printed on A3 paper as a pull-out spread from a computer magazine and showing the physical locations of and connections between a
      • Re:Flying Car (Score:4, Interesting)

        by OctaviusIII ( 969957 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @11:42AM (#29286405) Homepage
        I think a part of the supposed lack of innovation is that all the innovators go to computers or finance. I just graduated university a couple of years ago and I cannot imagine what it would have been like without word processing or internet research. It simply blows my mind. In finance, there are tools and products you can buy that were totally unimagined 30 or 40 years ago. Granted, a lot of them are bad for finance, but it took a great deal of innovation to create them. I suppose what we really have to do is make basic engineering "sexy" again, or at least sexy relative to finance or computers. Then, hopefully, the geeks will return to innovation that leads to sea changes in how things work.
    • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:02AM (#29284129) Homepage

      you cant have your flying car. It can be built but the idea is tied up for 75 years inside a damned patent.

      you see what has slowed technology? Patents and Copyrights. we went from a sane span to an insane one. It stifles creativity and technology.

      Want to kick start everything? Reset patents and copyright to what it was in 1920. and tell all the congresscritters that in no uncertian terms, anyone trying to extend it again will be killed on the steps as a traitor.

    • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jcnnghm ( 538570 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:25AM (#29284429)
      The only way you could honestly believe that progress has slowed since 1956 is if you discount modern semiconductor manufacturing, that global communications network thing that you are all using right now, cell phones, and routine space flight. We have made huge leaps and bounds in just 50 years. These things changed everything. When I was born in the early 80's, none of these things, except for perhaps routine space flight, was readily available. We didn't have a household computer until close to the 90s, and didn't have internet access until after that. I didn't get a cell phone until 2000. Each of these things fundamentally changed life. Everything kind of sucked without this stuff, and I would never want to go back. The internet, and the ICs that power the whole thing, are probably the single greatest, most useful, most prolific technological innovation of all time.
      • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

        by radtea ( 464814 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @02:20PM (#29288873)

        Each of these things fundamentally changed life.

        My grandmother was born in 1884 and died in 1980. She was born into "a world lit only by fire" for all practical purposes (the first Edison plant was a few years old).

        I was born in 1962, when commerical nuclear power plants already existed and human beings had (just) orbited the Earth.

        For the first half of her life medicine was mostly a matter of not getting sick. For the second half, antibiotics and vaccinces cut disease rates by orders of magnitude. This has not changed in my lifetime.

        When she was born, horse, rail and ship were the only practical modes of long-distance transport. When I was born, cars and planes--which didn't even exist when she was born, had taken over, and have not changed much since.

        When she was born, telegraphs were the only means of fast long-distance communciations and mass media did not exist. When I was born we had telephones, radio and TV, and the only change since has been the Internet and cell phones. This is the ONLY area of revolutionary technological change in my lifetime.

        When she was born, people burned wood and coal at home. When I was born people used electricity from central generating stations that burned coal or oil, used nuclear power, or hydroelectric power.

        The list of entire industries that did not exist when she was born that did when I was born would be long. The list of industries that did not exist when I was born that exist now would be short: biotech, software development (which existed in 1962 but wasn't yet an industry) and the Web. The semi-conductor industry existed, and many of the same companies back then are still around today: HP, TI, Sony, etc.

        You have to understand what this argument is saying: it is not that there has been no change in the past 50 years, but that the pace of change by any measure has been much smaller than in the preceding 50 years.

    • Re:Flying Car (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Evil Shabazz ( 937088 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:21AM (#29285093)
      There was an article related to this in the Business Week the other day. Their discussion focused around the devastating effects today's Wall Street has had on long-term corporate research. When a company is publicly traded, every move it makes is to be focused on short-term shareholder value, even so far as the the detriment of long-term viability in many cases. Companies are not nearly as willing or able to invest in long term research. The old giants that helped get us where we are today (Bell Labs, Xerox, IBM's research arm, etc etc) can no longer justify all those open-ended speculative research projects because almost all of Wall Street's money today is focused on short-term gains and not long-term investment. It does not even matter if you are a big research giant who's past record can easily absorb a research failure or two: look what happened to Proctor & Gamble when their Olean research product didn't do so well - their stock tanked from $70 to $15 (they have since managed to recover pretty well).

      Then you add on top of that the fact that Mr. Bush and his administration was anti-science. Public-private partnership was also a huge part of what drove a lot of the advancement we saw through the 70s, 80s, and 90s through the likes of DARPA and others. With that "backstop" money drying up, companies are even less able to justify research projects to their shareholders.

      All that said, at least we are still seeing some progress still occuring. The iPhone initiated a pretty significant advancement in smartphone interface design which we have seen Palm, Blackberry, and others jump on.
  • Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Carewolf ( 581105 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @07:55AM (#29283501) Homepage

    Yes, it has. I wouldn't emphasize 50years though. Just look at computers the last 10years and computers 20years ago. In 1999 I was on slashdot from a computer not much different from this one. In 1989 I was trying to get a dial-up modem so I could connect to a BBS from my Amiga.

    • Re:Yes (Score:5, Funny)

      by tpgp ( 48001 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:13AM (#29283627) Homepage

      In 1999 I was on slashdot from a computer not much different from this one.

      Yes, but in 1999 did you have twitter? Facebook? Now that's progress.

      Why - just think, by 2029, you might be able to let everyone know the consistency of your latest shit, just by thinking about it!

    • Re:Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by smallfries ( 601545 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:38AM (#29283835) Homepage

      But you've hit the nail on the head. In the fifty year span that the author considers (taking liberties with certain invention dates to improve his point) he ignores communication technologies.

      The phone (fixed-line) gets a mention as part of his grandmother's lifespan, but mobile phones? Didn't happen. The Internet? Didn't happen.

      Those two inventions alone are signs of huge progress. I'm not sure how they could be labelled as "incremental evolutions" of the phone and the computer. One meant that people stayed in contact with each other regardless of location, and the other meant that we automate communication tasks. Both complete revolutions that have changed our lifes completely.

      (yes, in the space of 50 years. If you look at 20 then for early adopters of these techs it would look more like a flat plateau).

      The irony is that his claims will have been read casually by millions using these technologies, where-as 50 years ago they would have been printed and distributed to a few locations.

    • Re:Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Znork ( 31774 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:10AM (#29284243)

      I'm not so sure; the feeling could simply be due to the sample interval of information becoming much, much shorter.

      Innovation has never really been 'revolutionary', it just may have seemed so due to the slow propagation of information in earlier centuries, pretty much the same error in thinking that's behind the idea of patents. Innovations seem 'revolutionary' for those who had little insight in the fields, but were and are natural incremental advances on other incremental advances (for example, look at the number of 'lightbulbs' suddenly appearing during the two decades before and around it got 'invented').

      As incremental steps are taken, eventually enough advances come together to create an economically useful and viable product. The step where advances turn possible, but unprofitable, technology into profitable technology is also one of the factors making things seem 'revolutionary'. Many of the things like flying 'cars' are possible but utterly uneconomical.

      Tubes, transistors, cars, none of them could have come into existence as a 'revolutionary' invention much earlier; the prerequisites weren't there. Nor would they have come into existence much later; once the prerequisites were there technologically and economically, and the need existed, the opportunity was there.

      The article also mentions 'cancer' as something which still hasn't got a cure; an obvious information problem. Both because 'cancer' isn't one disease, and also because there are various kinds that can be pretty much 'cured' or even prevented depending on their cause (for example, cancer caused by HPV, which can be vaccinated against). The fact that various vectors can screw with DNA isn't something that's going to have a revolutionary 'cure', but many incremental steps will reduce the mortality of many of them over time.

      Still, DNA damage related mortality, whether in the form of cancers, or in the form of wear on the cell replacement and repair ability (which will result in eventual deadly events like strokes), which are basically two sides of the same coin, will still remain a large factor in causes of death. Especially since when you cure most other things, those are simply the ones that are going to put the nail in your coffin no matter what. Until incremental advances in various technologies come together to allow us to either replace specific cells in a perfectly targeted fashion or we can replace complete bodies.

  • Lately (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nerdfest ( 867930 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @07:58AM (#29283521)
    We seem to be specializing in making things cheaper, not better ... perhaps it's economy or globalization related. I just don't think think we're spending the research money that's needed to continue the pace of previous decades. We are getting quite good at combining the work of others ... and even better at patenting it.
    • Re:Lately (Score:5, Insightful)

      by courteaudotbiz ( 1191083 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:11AM (#29283613) Homepage

      I just don't think think we're spending the research money that's needed

      No, we're spending on marketing to sell the cheap stuff...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tomtomtom ( 580791 )

      Another way to put this though is that we're democratizing technology. 50 years ago, only the wealthy could afford to own a car, or a television, or a computer, or to travel by air. Today, everyone except for the very poorest can afford all of those things. I'd argue quite strongly therefore that cheaper is better.

    • Re:Lately (Score:4, Informative)

      by necro81 ( 917438 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:36AM (#29283815) Journal
      This comment dovetails nicely with a recent article in Wired: how Good Enough [] is taking over. Call it the MP3 effect - the smaller file size and increased portability of compressed audio won out over fidelity. The sound quality wasn't Great, but considering that you could get your entire collection into your pocket and listen anywhere, anytime meant that it was Good Enough.

      Where is the fastest growth in video cameras: the Flip and mobile phones, not pricey 1080p camcorders. Fastest growth in computers: netbooks, not high-powered desktops. Biggest thing in health care: clinics to handle minor ailments, not full-service hospitals. So-so call quality from Skype? No problem. MSWord getting too bloated and expensive by feature creep? Try Google Docs, even if it is slow, requires an internet connection any time you want to do something, and was perpetually in Beta.

      I'm not sure I agree with this thesis entirely, but is does make some interesting points.

      This is not exactly to say that Good Enough doesn't represent technical progress. Indeed, the ability for Good Enough to be good enough is a testament to technical progress, because that has allowed computer power to become cheap and ubiquitous. In some cases, like the Flip, some might say that creating a simple device that actually does what it is supposed to, simply and easily, is progress compared to a device that tries to do everything, but is a total kludge.
  • by AbRASiON ( 589899 ) * on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:04AM (#29283561) Journal

    Not much more to say really, things are slowing down, improvements to products are minimal.
    Actual, genuine newfangled technology what is there? Everything is an iteration upon an iteration.

    We still use the microwave, we still use the freezer, the cooktop, the oven, we mostly use the combustion engine, we still mostly use steam for power plants, computers have gotten faster and we have LCD's now but nothing huge has hapenned, we don't have anti-gravity, we don't have teleportation, we can't change one thing in to another (easily), medically we still aren't growing replacement bodies.

    Yes things have gotten better but I haven't seen a huge revoloutionary change to be honest in my lifetime, maybe the mobile phone I guess.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      that's because every improvment has a huge impact on economy and let's face it, stock markets is world wide now it's not just local like 70 years ago.

      Hydrogen car----Pretty sure it,s being held back by oil companies because they would lose it all
      Flying cars-------Anti-gravity no but alterbative plane/cars are in progress.
      Body parts--------Well, they have done some interesting things with mice but religious groups are blocking growth in this area every step of the way.
      Disease-------------Same as the above, G

      • by 4D6963 ( 933028 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:33AM (#29284519)

        Hydrogen car Hydrogen is a very crappy way to store electricity. No, it's not held back by oil companies, it's held by the fact that it'd be even worse than electric cars.

        Flying cars Yeah, there are so many technical and practical issues with having flying cars it's not even funny.

        Body parts Religious groups? Are you fucking kidding? What's their impact? Oh yeah, sure, they put a minor speed bump in the way of stem cell research. Let's blame them for not being yet able to grow replacement brains.

        So major things have not happen because of GOD and MONEY that's it.

        No, major things haven't happened because they're not yet possible, feasible or practical.

        On a side note, you know who you sound like? Hyde from That '70s Show. "There is no gaz shortage man! It's all fake. The oil companies control everything! Like there's this guy who invented this car that runs on water man!"

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FTWinston ( 1332785 )
      Mobile phone and internet are certainly revolutionary from a social point of view.
      Technologically, however, pretty much all progress is incremental.

      Tele-visual radio transmissions built upon radio transmissions of sound, which built upon radio transmissions of morse, which built upon wired transmission of morse, so on and so on. Each of these had dramatic social consequences, but technologically, they were still incremental - even if the increment was large in some cases

      There are obvious reasons that
    • by plover ( 150551 ) * on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:56AM (#29284061) Homepage Journal

      Yes things have gotten better but I haven't seen a huge revoloutionary change to be honest in my lifetime, maybe the mobile phone I guess.

      I'm assuming you're fairly young. You didn't experience how disconnected the world was 40, 30, or even 20 years ago. 20 years ago, it was possible to dial a phone and talk to someone on the other side of the planet. Expensive, so it was not common, but not surprising. 30 years ago, it was a Big Deal to talk to someone on the other side of an ocean. 40 years ago it was a tear-filled occasion to get a phone call from overseas: "Anna, go wake the kids, it's our little Jimmy calling from Over There!" Having grown up with that kind of a reaction to a phone call, for me to now yawn while calling my developers in Bangalore for a status meeting while I ride the train to work, yeah, I can see that as a huge change.

      What annoys me more about the timeline is that marking "world wide web" as a single point is like marking the discovery of electricity once and then ignoring every electrical invention since because it's already covered. The internet created a new landscape upon which data lives; it changed how people live, work, and play, and it's being filled with even more magical wonders at a staggering pace. Just because they're riding piggy-back on the single "invention" of the web doesn't mean they're not new.

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:08AM (#29283587) Journal
    What if the author had found data on inventions that failed? Would the author see a huge amount in the lifetime of his grandmother (if those records exist) and very few during his own lifetime (per capita in both time periods)?

    Sometimes it feels like for every one hobby project I take on there are nine more that die at some point in development. Perhaps today we bet on sure things -- like incremental developments on things already existing -- instead of investing our time in risky ventures? Possibly because development and production of an idea is a costly venture with many people needed along the way. It gets harder to be a one stop shop as we're trained to be specialized and therefore our failures become more costly. Our economic system has evolved to reward only those that succeed and really really punish those that don't.

    Probably not an adequate explanation but may explain part of it.
  • thought experiment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:11AM (#29283609)

    I often do a thought experiment and compare multiple fields in roughly similar intervals:
    American Revolution, American Revolution #2 (aka Civil War), WWI, Vietnam War, Present

    In each field I list, we have made vast strides, for example in Communications:
        American Revolution: letter, signal lanterns, flags (much like the Romans)
        Civil War: electronic telegraph
        WWI: radio, telephone
        Vietnam War: TV, satellite, limited computer communications
        Present: cell phones, sat phones, GPS, Internet, etc.

    To someone living in the present, the pace seems to be slower as you don't realize the life/world changing events until a few years down the road, yet much is happening.

  • Ray Kurzweil (Score:5, Informative)

    by gr8dude ( 832945 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:11AM (#29283611) Homepage

    would disagree with the article. []

  • Lets try a list (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:14AM (#29283639) Journal
    Germans where spooked in 43-45, tried a lot.
    Soviets and Americans (Brits and French too) took what they could in tech and people, building on what they could.
    Soviets raced the USA in anything and everything, this saw a big push for real science education (GI bill helped ect).
    End of the cold war, no need for an educated public, a gov/private push to get science back as an arts subject and the population spending, dumb and greedy again.
    If you cant understand it, it cannot harm you, rust belt production lines can stay open, profits are safe.
    So now we have gone from a Unix like brain to a MS like gui slop.
    No need for deep understanding, just spend, point and click.
    The problem is science spending is just not an easy sell to the east or west coast or middle America.
    The east and west coasts want to keep the existing power/profit structures, the middle America just wants "science" in the dust bin and back to safe, faith based engineering subjects.
  • by HuguesT ( 84078 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:15AM (#29283645)

    I'd mostly agree with the recent lack of "big invention" like the aeroplane or the car, however the author underplays the role of the computer and associated communication technologies. Now whether we like it or not we are moving towards a single, small world where everybody can communicate with everyone else and can access most of the world's public knowledge cheaply and effectively. This is increasingly replacing travel and having profound effects at every level of the society. Furthermore, whereas the car and the aeroplane were used for war, the computer so far has mostly been used for peace. As a result we have avoided a third WW so far that would have destroyed us utterly. Of course this is not strictly true but by and large not altogether incorrect.

    At the same time we are becoming aware that the world is small, exeedingly finite and that resources are scarce on the one hand, and that expanding our universe to other planets is extremely difficult on the other. We are at an important point in history. Either we rise to the challenge of providing cheap energy, food, shelter, clothes, learning and health for everybody, or in a few short decades we will be all dead. We do not have another couple of millennia ahead of us.

    The good thing is that we have now more thinkers, scientists, engineers and industrialists than at any point in history, by several orders of magnitude. However, we are all driven by greed. The odds are almost even, but maybe I'm an optimist.

  • by consonant ( 896763 ) <> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:16AM (#29283655) Homepage
    I can't believe a tech magazine has gone OUT OF ITS WAY to make this article practically unreadable.

    Nothing works - Single page view [] still shows me about 65% page-width of sidebar, there is no print view to speak of, only a "Print" option that I could use to make a PDF, except even that is too shittily formatted to read, and for some reason the text column decides it's a good idea to get even narrower at some point after the insanely difficult-to-decipher timeline image. Of which a convenient PDF download is linked to, which is THREE FRAKKIN MEGABYTES and still a total disaster to read.

    Is this some sort of test about who RTFA and who doesn't?

    Well, even TFA is one meandering, rambling muse better suited for a blog, which is a real pity, as the writer Alfred Nordmann has two reasonably well written essays up on his site []. *sigh* Some people are just better at papers than articles with word-limits.
  • by owlnation ( 858981 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:17AM (#29283661)
    War is probably the greatest catalyst for change and technological advancement. The period from 1880 to 1960 was one of the most turbulent in World history. Both the Great War and WWII spurred a lot of tech, not just killing machines, but also in medicine and materials sciences amongst many other things.

    I guess it is a good thing that we have lived in relatively-speaking peaceful times in comparison. However, hopefully there is a way of humanity getting its act together to precipitate change without the need for life and death conflict. The cynic in me however, suggests that maybe war is a necessary mechanism for social change. Kind of like forest fires, plagues, etc, in the ecosystem.
  • green stuff (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hey ( 83763 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:19AM (#29283665) Journal

    Finally running out of (cheap) oil might cause some innovations.

  • by Cuprous ( 74856 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:24AM (#29283711)

    If you look at the technical advances of the first half of the 20th century, there is a common thread. Many (most?) were the direct result of basic science research (antibiotics, pasteurization, lasers, radio, even flight). Furthermore, many benefited from our dramatic increase in knowledge of the physical world. You can look at the list of Nobel prize recipients in physics, etc and thank them for research which directly improved your life.

    If you want more advances, call your congressman and tell them that you want increased funding to the NSF, NIH, NIST, DOE, and NASA for basic research. Then sit back ten or twenty years.

    • Ten or Twenty Years? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by tekrat ( 242117 )

      If you want more advances, call your congressman and tell them that you want increased funding to the NSF, NIH, NIST, DOE, and NASA for basic research. Then sit back ten or twenty years.

      Because it will take Congress ten or twenty years to pass a bill that increases funding to the NSF, NIH, NIST, DOE, and NASA. Let's face it. Progess has slowed because it takes an act of Congress to perform an act of Congress.

      Actually progress has slowed because we haven't discovered any new energy sources since fission. We

  • by ShooterNeo ( 555040 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:28AM (#29283741)

    A better yardstick for technological progress is not the utility of technology, but the internal complexity of the technology. A Mercedes today may still be an internal combustion engine automobile - but far more engineering has gone into the design of the auto than into a mercedes of 1959. There's far more sophisticated embedded systems inside it, from electronic keys to a sophisticated crash mitigation system. Aerodynamics and reliability and numerous other factors have had countless iterations of engineering put into them.

    Yet, of course, the actual improvement in your life if you owned either car is small. You're more likely to survive a crash in the newer automobile - but crashes don't happen every day, and people drive more dangerously today, so the death rate is comparable. Either car can go 70 mph on the interstate.

    All the rest of technology today is similar. A lot of things don't seem to have improved much - but the complexity of the internals have increased. Doctors and hospitals today have a much longer list of things they worry about when they treat for a disease - although outcomes are only slightly better.

    He is right about one thing. For the nanotechnology and flying cars and other wonders of the "singularity", the internal complexity of that technology will dwarf anything we have today. Human beings, even working as large teams, don't really have the brain power to create technology this complicated within a reasonable investment timespan. That's why the first stage of the singularity is information technology : we first have to augment our ability to handle complexity (whether through AI or cyborgs or whatnot). The flying cars and the immortality granting nanotechnology come later.

  • by martijnd ( 148684 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:29AM (#29283759)

    In the space of less than 15 years we have more or less put online the combined sum of all human knowlegde ; made it accessible and searchable. And for good measure we added instant and nearly free communication (remember when long distance was expensive?) and wired to the Internet everyone with a monthly income over US$ 100. Personal networks are no longer limited to your church community or secret society -- a typical family keeps in daily contact with its members around the world.

    You can moan about flying cars all you want, but creating those billions of webpages has kept busy all of Generation X&Y.

    Still waiting for Generation Z to get bored with playing online games... common you slackers.

  • by MoobY ( 207480 ) <anthony&liekens,net> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:31AM (#29283775) Homepage

    Answering this question from the viewpoint of IT, CS or electronics in general, yes, I have the same feeling.

    However, if you look at other sciences, like biology, there's an amazing evolution of technologies, methodologies and revolutionizing new insights that are going to change the world around is, possibly in more disruptive ways than computers have. If the 20th century is the century of computers, we're still strongly believing that the 21st century will see (and is seeing) a lot of revolutions in biology.

    So if you feel, like me, that CS is dead and still want to go on a technological quest, try something else.

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:35AM (#29283803) Journal
    America, along with western EU, were the most innovative countries going. The reason is that we had the infrastructure to building ideas in a reasonable fashion. We had lots of cheap raw material and we encouraged it by pushing engineers. As such, it was the lone innovators that pushed thing. Also, the US gov had until 1982, pushed all sorts of RD for the basic science. America was primed to be a technical innovator.

    But under reagan and then under W, America backed off from basic science RD. In addition, we have been allowing our manufacturing to flow to China and Software to India. Neither of these countries have the infrastructure that the west has, BUT they will get it. Once it is there, then you will see a resurgence in technical progress.
  • by Eskarel ( 565631 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:38AM (#29283831)

    There have been any number of absolutely amazing and revolutionary changes in the last 50 years, they just haven't been as "in your face" as the ones in the previous 50 years.

    In the last 50 years, we've had cures for diseases they didn't even know existed 50 years ago. We've had degrees of miniaturization which are just ridiculous, as well as increases in efficiency which are monumental. Yes these may seem like refinements in their results, but the technology behind them has been absolutely amazing. No one realistically predicted things like integrated circuits 50 years ago, even if they predicted the kinds of things that would be made with them. There's no car, or plane, or anything like that, but it doesn't change the fact that revolutionary discoveries have been made.

    There's also the sci-fi factor. The 20th century, particularly the second half, was really the peak science fiction, people envisaged all sorts of things, many of which are probably impossible, they just imagined everything. This make it seem like everything we have was old hat, whereas just because an author came up with the idea it doesn't mean that making it work wasn't revolutionary. We've been fantasizing about flying cars for probably as long as there have been cars, but that won't mean that if/when they actually work it won't be a revolutionary discovery.

  • NO. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 192939495969798999 ( 58312 ) <info@de v i n m o o r> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:38AM (#29283833) Homepage Journal

    Not only has the rate not slowed, but the rate has never been higher. I can present two different arguments to how wrong it is to assert that the rate is slowing, etc.

    1. 10 years ago, we all would have been thoroughly shocked to walk into a store and get a 1TB drive for our PC's for under $100. To say that in 1969 there wouldn't have been widespread shock at the current state of the Internet, PC's, automotive technology, etc. in general is nothing short of utter rubbish. Let's take another example: cars. Do you think that drag cars in 1969 could do a quarter mile in under 4 seconds? That would have crushed the low 7 second times at the time, and it would have blown everyone's mind that you could even get to a speed like 330 mph in just a few seconds without a rocket engine.

    2. This is just a more specific form of an argument that has been made every few decades since the beginning of written history, the argument that "we have done everything". This argument was made by famous physicists in the early 1900's, before Einstein and quantum physics. This argument was made about locomotive trains, or any vechiles for that matter, ever reaching over 50 mph without sucking people's lungs out from the high rate of speed. This argument was made about achieving mach 1 in an airplane. This argument is made about the progress of fine art.

    Here's why the argument fails. Human history as written is fixed. The future of humanity is not fixed and has not been written yet, and extends infinitely far into the future compared to any of our lifetimes (end of the world theories aside). Thus, the sum total of human knowledge approaches zero compared with the sum total of what may exist into the future, depending on how far out you want to look. Not only have we not invented everything, we kinda "haven't invented anything yet" compared to what the future will bring.

  • by Vandil X ( 636030 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:41AM (#29283867)
    ... and all the "safety first" crap that's been going on in recent time. (e.g. the NASA of today would have never made the 1969 deadline for Apollo, it would have failed with the Apollo 1 fire and subsequent 3-4 year safety meeting and canceling launches because of lightning 100 mile away.)
  • Two reasons (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Eudial ( 590661 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:41AM (#29283869)

    There's a couple of reasons why technology has sort of fizzled out, as I see it.

    First of all, DIY is dead or dying. Electronic components are harder to get hold of, and information about electronics is harder to get hold of (Internet is all good, but it really doesn't compare to the old electronics magazines). Heck, even the toys that 20th century kids engineering, like Lego and Meccano, have been either mutilated beyond recognition, or canceled.

    Secondly, patents. For every technological invention, there's a fair chance that someone has patented something in a way that they at least think they own they invention. Not only is it a turnoff to have to jump legal hurdles all the time, it's also really expensive and most people just don't have the resources.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Alioth ( 221270 )

      What? Electronic components are easier than ever to get hold of. At my fingertips, I can search the whole of Farnell, Digikey, RS and co. in seconds for a component I want, and have it arrive the next morning - not many years ago, these companies wouldn't even deal with individuals - they only dealt with companies and so all the hobbyist was left with was whatever they could scrape together from Maplin's or Radio Shack - but these days, Farnell and RS and co are quite happy to have mail order hobbyists. If

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by zoney_ie ( 740061 )

      Lego is experiencing a new golden age at the moment, and rather than catering to lowest common denominator, they offer products in just about every category imaginable now. Want crazy head-wrecking technic constructions? They're there. Amazing large models and sculptures for adult builders? Brick-collection sets that come with three suggested models? Brick buckets? Parts? City/Space/Castle sets that we would have gone berserk over as kids? Lego robotics? Popular culture done in Lego? (for all the criticism

    • Re:Two reasons (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Animats ( 122034 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @12:29PM (#29287133) Homepage

      Electronic components are harder to get hold of, and information about electronics is harder to get hold of.

      Actually, that's totally wrong, but there is a problem. As someone else mentioned, there's Digi-Key, which has most of the electronic parts in existence, takes orders on line, says online what it has in stock, has data sheets for all the parts on line, and ships within hours. As recently as the 1990s, many electronics distributors wouldn't even take credit cards. Having printed circuit boards made now means designing on line (with free software, even), sending a file to a board house, and waiting a few days for the board to show up. You can even get free simulation programs (try LTspice) to try analog circuits before you build them.

      The problems for hobbyists and kids aren't on the parts side. They're on the engineering side. In the 1950s, building an audio amplifier or a radio was a reasonable project. Something that turned lights on when it got dark impressed people. Now, who would bother? Nobody would be impressed. Nobody would use the thing. So why do it?

      Building anything comparable to even low-end consumer electronics requires engineering skills way beyond the hobbyist level. That's the big problem. Understanding basic electronics isn't enough. You need a good knowledge of electronics (at the Art of Electronics level), and then programming skills, possibly down to the FPGA level. It's quite possible to get all these skills, but it's a lot of information to absorb.

      The other problem is that surface-mount part assembly requires special tools, magnifiers, microscopes, and the precision of a watchmaker. Kids have trouble working with that level of precision. Many newer parts are surface-mount only. Yes, you can solder surface mount parts by putting a computer controlled temperature controller on a toaster oven, but even setting that up costs a few hundred dollars.

      Most electronics hobbyists today are pros who build stuff in their spare time.

  • Article has it wrong (Score:3, Interesting)

    by proslack ( 797189 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:51AM (#29283987) Journal
    Communications ("information") technology has been the biggest change in the last twenty years. Internet, cell phones, gps, wireless...none of this existed (to any significant degree) in the 1980s. Also, this list of patents by calendar year [] indicates that inventiveness, at least as measured by pursuit of IP protection, has a trend of increasing annually.
  • by Lord Grey ( 463613 ) * on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:52AM (#29283993)
    From a technology viewpoint, we -- the tech leaders of the world, from whatever country -- seem to be focused on iterative improvements more than anything else.

    Following the money trail, this almost certainly goes back to the people holding the purse strings and their (relatively) myopic, short-term desire to bet only on a sure thing. Game-changing technology isn't researched and brought into production because the monetary risk is too high for the short term. The focus is simply on "shipping" incremental improvements to existing tech sooner to keep the money flowing and the budget guys happy.

    This is pretty sad, for several reasons. Sticking to an always-incremental approach trains people to accept that approach as normal. Minor improvements are lauded as fantastic innovations. Thinking "outside the box" falls by the wayside and is considered radical. Only goals that can be met in the short term are actually set. And "the bar" drops lower and lower.

    I know full well that there is some excellent research and science going on around the world, and it's contributing to our general knowledge every day. That's fantastic. What we need, however, is more innovating applications of that technology.
  • Revolutionary? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @08:55AM (#29284045)

    I'm pretty sure that if you beam someone straight from 1969 to 2009, he would probably not believe his eyes. Cell phones, internet, memory cards the size of a fingernail storing gigabytes of data, ATM's, high speed trains, I doubt if he would be able to cope with all that (and more).

    Now if someones travelled from 1969 to 2009 at the more comfortable speed of 1 second per second, change would be gradual enough for him to hardly notice and to just adapt to the changing world around him. The thing about revolutions is that you seldom notice them when they're going on.

  • AT&T "You Will" (Score:5, Interesting)

    by michaelmalak ( 91262 ) <> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:03AM (#29284151) Homepage
    Check out the AT&T future-predicting "You Will" television ads [] from 1993/1994. They not only fail to predict the Internet at that late date ("buy theater tickets from an ATM"), more critically, they completely fail to predict the game-changing effect of the cell phone. The cell phone is even more of a liberator of women than the (non-big-wheel) bicycle was in 1890. The YouTube video What If Movies Had Cell Phones [] demonstrates how the lack of a cell phone was a critical plot device in the pre-cell-phone days, and by implication how the cell phone has restructured society.

    Also, a lot of technological advances, as always, are war- and government-centered and shrouded in secrecy. Although predicted in 1948, more than the stipulated 50 years ago, Big Brother has become a reality in the NSA office of the San Francisco AT&T building. GPS, Tomahawks, and Predators make destruction of arbitrarily-specified buildings and infrastructure available at the touch of a button. The cat ia out of the bag now regarding the Google sub-campus [] of the NASA Ames campus, which is known for its Artificial Intelligence research -- they have now named it the Singularity University [] -- who knows how much progress they've made thus far and whether intermediate results are helping in the Big Brother effort. It's not common knowledge yet, but the five-century tradition of subjugating the world through a surface navy has ended. Surface ships, including and especially aircraft carriers, are obsolete, being vulnerable to hypersonic surface-skimming missiles. The stipulated 50 years ago, battleships were still a hot thing.

    This IEEE Spectrum piece is so bad that it not only doesn't recognize these recent and often secret game-changing innovations, it failed to mention the past innovation with the greatest societal impact: the S-Bend toilet drainpipe, which allowed indoor toilets without constantly emanating odors.

  • Fppt.. (Score:3, Informative)

    by bertok ( 226922 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:11AM (#29284263)

    Author misses lots of things, and makes all sorts of invalid comparisons.

    For example, the invention of the electric light may seem like a big thing, but there were centrally powered lighting systems already when it was invented - such as town gas lighting. Sure, electric lights are better, but one could say it's just an 'incremental improvement'. It's just a matter of perspective.

    And while the lightbulb was a big invention, it was largely unchanged for the first 50+ years. Almost every light bulb was a hot filament in a vacuum. More recently, we've been making entirely new sources of light, using entirely new chemical or physical principles.Think LEDs, OLEDs, all sorts of lasers, bioluminescence that we can now splice into rats and bunnies at will, etc... We've even made rather esoteric sources of light like beta-radiation powered lights that last for a decade.

    The author also makes comments like this:

    But despite daily announcements of one breakthrough or another, morbidity and mortality from cancer and stroke continue practically unabated, even in developed countries.

    Well... duh. Something has got to kill us in our old age eventually, and it'll be the diseases that are hard to cure, obviously. Until we develop some sort of immortality, that's not going to change. 100% of people will die, of something, no matter how good medicine is.

    Until we all become immortal, what about the major advancements, like the recent developments in growing organs? It's still in it's early stages, but even what we've got now is a massive leap forward in medicine, almost as big as the invention of modern surgical techniques.

  • by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:13AM (#29284273)

    The dates listed in the article, 1880-1960, are telling. They correspond to what I call the Age of Electricity. At the start of this period, electric and magnetic forces became well-understood from a physics perspective; by the end of it, we had mastered electrical engineering.

    It's not every day that humanity figures out how to use a new fundamental force: after all, there are only four of them. Electricity allows totally new paradigms for energy transmission and communications. It took 80 years to work through the consequences, but I think that even millennia from now it'll stand apart as a singular moment in human history, even more of a big deal than the mastery of fire.

    the technology itself had largely been anticipated

    True, but it's worth pointing out that one of the great inventions of 1880-1960 was science fiction.(*) There were a lot more people getting paid to anticipate the future in 1969 than in 1880.

    (*) Blah blah Mary Shelley Jules Verne yeah yeah whatever.

  • by spikesahead ( 111032 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:29AM (#29284477)

    Perhaps things have slowed down for us here in the developed, western world, but I have heard of an amazing shift in the third world; cell phones.

    For example, in Kenya there are 37 million people. Of those, only 1.3 have electricity. No lights, no fans, no TV, no electricity at all. However, 17 million people use cell phones and the number is screaming upwards every day! Imagine what a fundamental change it is to be able to talk with anyone at a distance in a developing nation? So much of what we take for granted in the western world boils down to the ability to pick up a phone and ask for what you want, be it goods or information.

    The article I lifted these figures from was discussing a solar powered cell phone, which will cut the final cord from the main grid. Now people who cannot walk to a grid connected location can still call for help, call to find a job, call to talk with a distant loved one.

    In the book Guns, Germs, and Steel,_Germs,_and_Steel [] it was postulated that the rise of the main Eurasian regions in history was mainly due to the free travel of ideas across a broad band of land where climatological and geological conditions were mostly similar, thus allowing different ideas about agriculture, living, and warfare to flow back and forth easily. This mixing of ideas is what made the Eurasian continent most often dominant over the Americas and the African continents, which are spread out longitudinally and thus cover a wider spread of terrain conditions and weather conditions.

    The advent of the mobile phone will become an equalizing factor, ideas will be able to spread faster and faster among the populations of the South American and African regions and the quality of life there will begin to experience the same kind of rapid upward swell which we in the western world assume is our birthright.

    (facts and figures lifted from this article; [] )

  • by hackus ( 159037 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:40AM (#29284615) Homepage

    No Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaalllly?

    Such a surprise!

    Keep patenting and extending copyrights out to the wealthy so they can decide what is innovation and what will hurt their grand children's profits.

    Keep greasing the rails so that the train of "progress" stays on the "lobbyist and collusion of government and business" tracks to monopolies so they can have ludicrous warchests of cash, locked up and not doing anything due to lack of competition. One of the great challenges Microsoft has is how to keep its enourmous cash funds out of the capital markets so it doesn't end up in a start up which would put them out of business, for example.

    Then wonder why there is no capital to do any start ups or research with.

    Welcome to wonderful world of corporate fascism. You play what they want to hear, you buy and use goods on their terms and the government throws you in jail if you dare otherwise.

    Its here. Right now.

    So when the day comes and you have to help your loved ones through hospice because we use the same protocols for cancer for the past 30 years, with corporations that deny you early prevention care because it is more profitable to make you buy extensive chemo drugs in stage 3 cancer, ask yourself this question:

    What would happen if science and technology wasn't driven by greed and power to control peoples lives? No secrets about who had what idea. Everything was open, and information was freely shared. One big freaking Open Source project with one goal: improve the human condition and advance science and technology at a pace comparable to waking up and finding out tomorrow a asteroid was going to hit the earth in 24 months and destroy everything.

    Science as a societal effort, pursued like every last persons life depended on it.

    Its a dream right now, but I bet in 100 years we would be sending people to colonize distant star systems, with round trip journeys measurable in hours. Not millions of years.


    PS: Oh, and I bet the expansion for WoW would look just really cool. :-)

  • Peak of Technology (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MrKaos ( 858439 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:41AM (#29284623) Journal

    As much as I want to hope, as much as I want to be optimistic and as much as I want to believe, reality kicks me in the face when I consider where humanity is right now. It's like being on a big fast comfortable train looking out the window and seeing that, a few miles ahead, the bridge we are about to cross has collapsed in the middle. You try and tell people "hey the bridge ahead has collapsed - we gotta stop this train", but instead people look at you as if you have committed some massive social fo-par, because the train is comfortable and why would they want to stop.

    In itself, technology is a gift that is completely neutral, it can either free or enslave. Unfortunately the current status quo is using that gift to pressure every living system on the face of this small planet, and that includes the human race. The bottom line for all of this is the economic models (that demand the pace of technological development) address natural resources as a subset of the economy, where in fact the reverse is true.

    Consider the reality of systemic human activity, in the short or long term it is not sustainable. Now consider this mind numbingly simple fact: Unsustainable systems cannot be sustained.

    Our technology has never been designed to be sustainable. When you realise that you realise that technology and progress, which is often demonised as the cause of all our ills, has always been misapplied to consume resources as if they are infinite, therefore, it has always been going backwards. How is that "exponential technological growth" possible with limited resources and *without* sustainability goals?

    I'm not saying it's impossible to change, actually, I think change will provide the greatest of technological challenges over the next few decades. But that would be *real* progress and it will be the masses against the vested interest groups who frame such changes as 'not realistic'. If you consider it critically and honestly the only thing that is 'not realistic' is the high energy/mass consumption configuration of our society. Until we change powers controlling the application human ingenuity and direction of technological development I suspect we are heading for a tailspin no amount of technological prowess will pull us out of.

  • Hindsight (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CopaceticOpus ( 965603 ) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:02AM (#29284859)

    I have one question for the OP, who was born in 1957. If the technological advances of today were "largely anticipated", how many millions of dollars did you make by investing in computers and internet technologies in the 80's and 90's?

Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter