Over the Past 10,000 years, mankind has seen technological advances unlike any other age. According to the World Book Mulitmedia Encyclopedia, Homo Sapiens emerged between 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. Compared to that sort of time scale, 10,000 is just the latest generation!
But my opinion is that this technological age is coming to an end. Not because there are no longer any things left to invent. That is far from over. The “technological dark age” will come to pass because of the way things currently are. There are forces in our world whose sole purpose is to maintain the status quo. And technology is a threat to those forces.
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A few centuries ago, the individual played a very important role in the advancement of Science. The greatest discoveries in the last century itself have all been due to individuals. Alexander Fleming, Heisenberg, Einstein, Dirak and too many more to mention. The greatest inventions all have the names of people attached to them. The light bulb (with a carbon filament), the aeroplane, the telephone, and the printing press.
In the modern day world however, the individual no longer has this claim to greatness. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, there are not many things that are unknown at first glance. Our ancestors could look around them and find questions. How high is the sky? Why is it blue? What are stars? How the heck is lightning formed? These days, all phenomena that is apparent to us is readily explained. There are still things to be discovered to be sure. However, in order to understand what we don’t know itself requires a considerable degree of expertise. For example, I know that we’re all searching for the elusive Higgs Boson. But to really understand why it’s so important and why it’s difficult to find requires a high degree of proficiency in theoretical physics. Simply getting to starting point is difficult enough.
Secondly, most technological inventions have been spurred by laziness. We thought candles were too much of a bother so we needed the light bulb. We thought that manual calculations were too difficult to so we made the computer. Walking is a pain, and so we built the automobile. There are many more things that can make our lives easier, and in that sense, there is certainly scope of innovation. But the rules have changed.
There are plenty of good ideas that we read about every day that will substantially increase the quality of our lives. Imagine for a moment that we find out we can easily harness Solar Energy for our energy requirements. In order to make it technologically feasible, considerable research needs to go into it. This research needs money. I can imagine Oil Companies being very interested in this research. Not in order to further it, but to throttle it. Nothing could be simpler for them, than to talk to one person, buy his or her patent for their latest invention, and let it collect dust on the shelves.
Suppose a new technique of communication was discovered that didn’t require us to use AT&T’s infrastructure? You can be quite sure that AT&T will lobby hard to throttle it pretty soon. Certain technologies take time to mature even though they may not be ideal at first. It took decades for the Airplane to be accepted as a viable way of travel even after the Wright Brothers had demonstrated their feasibility.
Another example is how major corporations like the RIAA are trying to throttle p2p. The RIAA would be exceedingly happy if the entire Bittorrent technology was scrapped, along with all the good that comes of it. But why go so far? The RIAA claims that even ripping CD’s to your harddisk is illegal. They would be happy if that technology was scrapped as well.
Similarly, corporations are trying hard to ensure that DVD’s can’t be copied.
The danger is something like Mark Elivins’ High Level Equilibrium Trap which attempts to describe why China’s technological growth came to an end and missed the industrial revolution. The current situation was just so comfortable that it didn’t warrant any need for future invention.
In my opinion, we are fast heading to a technological stagnation where only incremental changes on existing technology are allowed to flourish by those who benefit from it. Large corporations have every interest to see promising technologies crash and die in order to avoid the inevitable changes that they will bring if allowed to go forward.