Re: Is change slowing down?

Charlie Stross (
Mon, 28 Sep 1998 13:02:51 +0100

On Sat, Sep 26, 1998 at 05:08:13PM -0700, Paul Hughes wrote:
> John Clark wrote:
> > I don't agree with Robin, I think the singularity will happen, however
> > if I was arguing Robin's case I know what I'd say, change is slowing
> > down. Even in technologically advanced parts of the world the change
> in
> > daily life between 1899 and 1949 was greater than between 1949 and
> > 1999.
> I agree with almost all of your points. There is no single invention or
> scientific discovery since 1949 that has been as transformative as any
> of the
> other ones you mentioned prior to 1949.

Define 'single invention'.

The aeroplane was not a 'single invention', although it was conceptually a unitary transport device; the aeroplane relied on high power-to-weight ratio petrol engines, developments in aerodynamics pioneered by Lilienthal et al and followed up by the Wright Brothers, new designs of control system, the concept of horizontal stabilizers (something most early designs lacked) ... in short, a whole cluster of inventions that fused during the period 1901-1910 to give us a working machine.

You can do the same exercise with television, or automobiles, or colour cinematography, or whatever.

And I'm going to assert that there _are_ just as many, if not more, transformative inventions today as there were eighty years ago -- it's just that they end up being embedded _within_ existing clusters of inventions so that they're not obviously visible to us. Engine management systems in cars don't spawn a new 'visible' technological artefact, they improve the performance of an existing one.

Maybe progress is a fractal process, similar at all levels but looking rather boring if viewed from too great a distance?

> I would like to add to your
> list the
> very disappointing progress made towards wide-spread space exploration,
> development and migration. When I was a kid in the 1970's I fully
> expected
> that I would at least be helping to build an O'Neil colony at L4 or L5
> by now.
> Every single popular book on the subject, such as by Gerald K. O'Neil,
> T.A.
> Heppenhienmer and G. Harry Stine had ignited my enthusiasm and
> expectations
> that shaped my entire young adult life - including my initial decision
> to study
> engineering and physics in college. Needless to say I am neither - a
> decision
> that was hastened by the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Robert X. Cringely's current documentary, "The Glory of the Geeks" makes an interesting point; the first connection between two IMPs exchanged its first bytes of data just *seven minutes* after Neil Armstrong set his foot on the Sea of Tranquility. Which field has made more obvious progress since that time?

Flip the coin: before 1986, everybody would have answered, 'space travel'. The internet's technological development was submerged, invisible to most people. Yet here we are, staring at these green glowing dots on a screen and talking to people on the other side of the world as routinely as we used to read the newspapers!

The lesson to draw from this is that not all progress is visible, and huge changes can occur below the threshold of visibility, erupting into view only when they're nearly mature. CATS, for instance, _might_ bring your dream of space colonisation to fruition in a stupidly short period (ten years or less?) _if_ it hits critical mass with two or more competing cheap, reusable human-rated launch systems showing up at about the same time as some source of demand to drive the market. If, say, ROTON turns out to be a massive commercial success by 2005, it would be wrong to look at the industry and say 'this is all new stuff since 1998'; its ancestry goes back a long time. Just like the internet, which most people seem to think only came into existence in 1994.