Re: technological accleration?

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Tue Sep 04 2001 - 03:29:39 MDT

On Mon, Sep 03, 2001 at 07:48:20PM -0700, Tim Maroney wrote:
> If anything, the last fifty years seem like something of a lull for
> technologically-induced social revolution. There were more socially
> important things invented and deployed in the seventy-five years before 1951
> than in the fifty years after.
Not sure you're right, there.

Consider the cellphone. The USA is somewhat behind the curve due to a
crippling failure to standardize digital cellphones early on, but over
here ownership has passed 60% of the population and is still rising. (You
see pre-teen kids with cellphones so their parents can keep track of
them when they're playing out, for example.)

Ultimately I expect the mobile phone to have a comparable degree of social
impact to the automobile.

The fixed land-line phone connected _places_ -- the cellphone connects
_people_. For the first time you can contact a _person_ wherever they are.
This is a subtle distinction but one with huge long-term implications,
especially as the kind of data we can cram down a cellular link expands
to include video (thanks, Nokia) and medium-bandwidth digital stuff.

Want an anti-mugger device? Wear a camera or two and continuously spool
a DivX stream back to your home server via your phone. Want a business
with no offices? All you need is a palmtop computer and a mobile for
every employee. Want to ensure your kid is staying in school and not
playing truant? Interrogate their mobile phone's whereabouts. The social
implications are *only just* beginning to work themselves out -- it'll
take at least another generation to become clear just what the impact
of the personal cellphone is for society -- but it's already caused huge
changes in the decade since they started to become common.

This is a one-off item, and not one I can put a quantitative figure on
(especially because it's a change-in-progress). But I think there are other
socially revolutionary technologies that are slipping in under the radar
and that you may have missed. For example, advances in food preparation
technology in factories have turned the TV dinner from a soggy cardboard-
tasting novelty into something that many people eat every day, to the point
where many no longer _need_ to know how to prepare food from raw ingredients
like vegetables, spices and a cut of meat. That activity used to soak up
maybe ten to twenty hours of work time per household per week -- what is
replacing it?

Again: the RAF noted recently that the reflex speed of new applicants for
pilot training is vastly higher than their equivalents during the Battle of
Britain -- by 1940 standards, every applicant today has the reflexes to be
an ace. They blame the widespread adoption of computer games that foster
lightning hand-eye coordination skills. Who'd have expected son-of-Pong to
have serious defense implications in 1976? And what are the implications for
teleoperator-controlled surgery in, say, a decade's time, when that same
video generation begins graduating from medical school?

All this without mentioning the Flynn effect.

-- Charlie

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