Marginal technological change

One of the ideas prevalent today is that there is unprecedented technological change. Much of this, however, is actually marginal technological change related to existing core technologies, i.e., in effect a playing out of existing core technologies.

Consider cars. The basic structure of the automobile hasn’t changed in over 100 years. There is an energy source (typically a combustion engine nowadays, although more and more so a battery or combination), which causes something to move, which in turn causes wheels to move. Once we had a technological breakthrough which allowed for sufficient portable power to be generated (whether through a battery or a controlled explosion of hydrocarbons), there were no consequent, widely utilized, and revolutionary changes to cars in the basic technology relevant to transportation. Energy source -> something moves -> wheels move.

Once we had the basic technological core of cars, advances in the main function of a car (speed of transportation) diminished and then eventually stopped, and in some cases reversed (due to new problems that weren’t being solved relevant to driving, such as rush hour traffic). This is a common theme in contemporary technologies – air travel is similar, where initial increases in speed of transportation eventually diminished, and then began to reverse.

Computer technology is where things seem to be advancing rapidly, and this area seems to be the main example of why we have exceptional technological change, but this sense is not due to the continual introduction of new, revolutionary core technologies. Rather, it is typically the refinement or marginal advancement of technologies related to the existing core technologies, which are electric current running through logical gates. More so than with car technology, the fundamental technologies involved had huge and diverse potential, and so we continue to make significant innovations using the same core technologies. This, however, should not be confused with introducing new, fundamental advances in technologies (which in turn usually require advances in the underlying science).

In other words, much of the technological advance today is actually a playing out of advances that were made well over 100 years ago (electricity, combustion engine, radio, logical gates, and so on). The playing out of advances is not something unique to our era – in most times, there were certain technologies which were seeing relatively constant innovation. These considerations suggest that the impression of exponential, contemporary technological change may be overstated.

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