Thursday, April 26, 2018

The headline actually was "This chart shows every major technological innovation in the last 150 years"

Sometimes, when you've been working on a theory for a long time, you come across an example so apt, so overly on-the-nose, that it makes you doubt yourself.

Case in point, one of the theses  of the upcoming technology book is that we have collectively bought into the idea of constantly accelerating progress to such an extent that people are (consciously or unconsciously) starting to distort the historical record in order to keep that record consistent with the myth.

Among the problems you run into trying to fit a nice exponential curve to technological progress over the past 200 or so years are the substantial spikes in innovation around the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the Cold War era. The causes for these surges are complex but the short and very incomplete version is internal combustion/electricity/lucky breaks in the first case and Cold War cash/deferred demand/lucky breaks in the second.

The only way to make the data fit the curve is to drop lots of important accomplishments from the surge periods and/or greatly lower your standards for more modern accomplishments.

As I near the end of the project, I came across this:
In its recent Equity Gilt Study, which is a massive annual report by Barclays chronicling the bank's thoughts on important topics in finance and economics, the bank focused heavily on new technologies and particularly on cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence.

I read over this list a number of times, trying to find something I had missed. I couldn't believe that neither the airplane nor the telephone would make the list but both Bitcoin and the Bitcoin ATM did, that the creation of recorded media is ignored -- neither photography, phonographs nor motion pictures make the list -- but they find room for three companies (Netflix, Apple iTunes, YouTube) that distribute that media. Telstar didn't make the cut either.
I'm tempted to say something snide about people who rely on Barclays or Business Insider for investing insights, but the inability to have an intelligent, historically literate discussion about technology is not limited to one institution or publication.


  1. Replies
    1. Yep, and both the turn of the century and postwar agricultural revolutions.

  2. Perhaps they should have consulted with some historians of science and technology?

    1. Or, failing that, spent 15 or 20 minutes on Wikipedia.