Promise (and pitfall) of techno-hype

Here is a fun article from today’s Washington Post on techno-hype — The iPhone As Crowning Achievement? Um, Hel-lo? – washingtonpost.com

Americans love their techno-hype, which — from the space program to the Segway — has long been a facet of daily life. Embracing the hype over the would-be Next Big Thing is one of the things that defines us as Americans, the most innovative and optimistic people on Earth.
Today, that Thing is the iPhone. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Apple’s new gizmo — on sale starting today! — is a cellphone, a camera, an Internet browser, a music player and (possibly) a Swiss Army knife. Gaseous clouds of publicity have hung about its introduction since January, when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs declared that his company is “reinventing the telephone.” The San Francisco Chronicle played along, asking this week: “Can the iPhone Change Your Life?” (The paper’s conclusion: Um, yeah, kind of.)
The iPhone is just the latest iCon in our Golden Age of Techno-Hype. It follows essentially similar swoons for the XBox, PlayStation 2, the Razr phone, PalmPilot, BlackBerry, iPod, HDTV and other products. Periodically, hosannas are also shouted over the latest wonder of the Internet (Amazon, eBay, Google, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc.).
What’s more, there are whole utopian promises floating major parts of our scientific-industrial complex. Nanotechnology. Biotechnology. Artificial intelligence. Gene-mapping and stem cell medicine. Fusion power and hydrogen fuels.
The persistent techno-hype of this era, however, masks a simple observation: We don’t live in particularly inventive or transformative times. This has been an age of scientific refinement, not revolution.
As British historian David Edgerton notes in his new book, “The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900,” much of the basic technology we rely on today was introduced many decades ago, although improved upon in multiple ways since.
. . .
If a person were to time-travel from the late 1940s to today, observes Edward Tenner, a technology historian, he’d have very little trouble recognizing our age.
Tenner, the author of “Why Things Bite Back,” about the unintended consequences of technology, argues that truly radical innovation has occurred in roughly 30-year cycles — and that our own era isn’t one of the radical waves.
. . .
The downside of techno-hype is that it has raised expectations that can’t, or haven’t yet, been met. Despite bright promises, some technologies have never quite worked as touted, or have had side effects that arrested their potential (which is why no one wants a nuclear power plant in their back yard).
Remember artificial intelligence, which was supposed to make computers as intuitive as a human being? A 2-year-old child still has superior reasoning and cognitive abilities. Remember magnetic-levitation (mag-lev) trains, which would speed passengers to their destinations in frictionless comfort? Remember low-temperature superconductivity, which would enable almost infinite power storage?
Remember the supersonic Concorde, which would take over transatlantic travel? The SST is now just a museum piece.
The good news is that if Tenner’s cycle theory is right, we could be on the verge of a new 30-year wave of paradigm-shattering innovation. Maybe in a few years, stem cell medicine will yield all the miracles that its supporters have promised. Maybe animal cloning and genetically modified foods will lead to the end of malnutrition and starvation. Maybe breakthroughs in battery and other energy-storage technologies will create true alternatives to fossil fuels and thus slow the pace of global warming.
Maybe. But as in all things technological, it pays to heed a disclaimer buried in the fine print:
You can’t always trust the hype.

I strongly agree that we are in the grips of techno-hype. Our view of innovation suffers from gadget-ites. But I have to disagree that we haven’t seen major technological breakthroughs. We have seen the “green revolution” (those of you under 50 would probably not remember that – but it dramatically increased food supplies, especially in the developing world), the transportation revolution, the communications revolution. And the double-helix structure of DNA was not articulated until the early 1950’s. Each decade has its breakthroughs – which are sometimes not recognizable until well after the fact. The breakthroughs of the past 10 years may still be in the academic literature and discussed within the small circle of specialists — not in the popular press and not yet showing up in the form of gadgets.
So I think the person from 1945 would suffer from a form of “Future Shock” if they arrived today. Not because of the basic technology, but because of the social and organizational uses of that technology and of all the other social and organizational changes. In this sense, both historians and the author of the article fall into the same technological determinism trap of believing in techno-hype. So much more has changed in the economy and society since 1945 that we often fail to realize it. Innovation has been piled upon innovation — and only some of them technological.
So, the bottom line is true — you can’t always trust the techno-hype. But you also can’t trust the hype of the techno-hype.

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