I often read articles and reports on the "demise of a particular technology", "the future of technology", and similar topics. Industry "experts" and "think tanks" love crystal–gazing, but they use complicated terminology to conceal it under the veil of science.
This tendency of predicting future has existed for centuries, if not more. Aldous Huxley, one of the pioneers of science fiction, predicted air taxis in his seminal book – A Brave New World. Characters in his novel use helicopters for commuting and landline phones for communicating. This shows the folly of predictions, and why it is outright foolish to do so except in the realms of science fiction. I wish I had kept a log of predictions that experts have made over the years so that I could present empirical evidence on how wrong they have been. I will do it from now onwards. Even if I lack the talent of a crystal-grazer, becoming a chronicler is easy.
How Long Does it Take for a Technology to Become Outdated?
We consistently fail in predicting technologies because almost all predictions, outside the area of pure science such as Mathematics and Physics, involve uncertainties. Our world is stochastic (random), and how the events have turned out or will turn out is one of many possibilities. All these possibilities depend on umpteen factors that are impossible to know beforehand and how they will turn out is difficult to predict. "Butterfly Effect" in the Chaos Theory is one such example where a small change in an early stage of a nonlinear system can result in large differences in the later stages.
Unfortunately, all this overwhelming empirical evidence or prediction errors has not deterred experts from crystal-gazing under the guise of science.
Fascination with New Things
Nassim Taleb has coined a term for this fascination with everything new. He calls it Neomania – Mania of all shiny and new things. He gives a rule of thumb for predicting the future of an existing technology. According to him, the age of an existing technology is a good predictor of its future. If something has lasted for 50 years, we can safely assume it will last for another 50 years. He quotes chairs, shoes, and cutlery as examples.
His approach is innovative and refreshing but has its limitations. Pagers and landlines are 2 things that died a sudden death with the arrival of the mobile phones. To be fair to Nassim Taleb, he agrees that his rule has some notable exceptions. And both pagers and landline telephones corroborate his rule to a certain extent. Pagers, a comparatively newer technology, were immediately replaced by mobile phones while landlines, an older technology, took longer.
I decided to check Taleb's claim about the technologies and their timeframes by making a list of major technologies of the past 5, 10, 15, and 20 years. Twenty years is a reasonable time-span because the internet, the game changer that no one predicted, achieved global influence around 1996-98. The internet (and the world wide web) changed our world and caused the demise of several technologies that existed in the pre-internet era.
List of Major Technologies of the Past 20 years
2018: Broadband internet, smartphones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (ebooks, audiobooks), 4K TV, radio
2013: Early stage broadband internet, smartphones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (fewer ebooks and audiobooks), HD TV, radio
2008: Even slow internet, first smartphones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (no ebooks or audiobooks), LED TV, radio
2003: Ancient internet, advanced mobile phones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (no ebooks or audiobooks), LCD TV, radio
1998: Dial-up internet, early mobile phones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (no ebooks or audiobooks), CRT TV, radio
I may have missed a few important technologies, but the inference is clear. Since the advent of the internet 20-25 years ago, few new technologies have become mainstream. Most of the innovations of the past 20 years like smartphones, ebooks, numerous mobile apps etc, are either improvements or newer applications of existing technologies.
Process Improvements and Efficiency Gains
I get sceptical whenever I read or hear someone talking about the future of a groundbreaking technology. Flying cars is a prime example. They have captured the imagination of science fiction authors and readers for generations. Now, thanks to the internet and 24/7 news channels, the flying cars have entered the realms of masses. But almost all innovations that have happened in the automobile industry over the past century are efficiency gains. Nearly all automobiles use some variant of the internal combustion engine that was invented more than a century ago. There have been numerous advancements in safety, automation to various degrees, and improvements in fuel efficiencies, but the modern cars still run on roads, have 4 wheels, and are driven by humans. Path-breaking innovations like flying or driverless cars remain on a conceptual stage. It is difficult to know whether they will become mainstream in the near future or not. Although early signs are encouraging, the historical evidence against such extreme changes is strong. My guess (And I mean guess and not prediction) is it will take a much longer time for the driverless or flying cars to move from the design and prototype stage to commercial reality than most people believe.
Another good example is renewable energy. Almost all technology used in renewable energy generation (solar panels and wind turbines) is decades old. It has become cost-effective and efficient over the years because of the gradual tinkering and incremental changes. Impact of the cumulative buildup in the renewable energy technology over the years has created an industry that might change our future. But if you think fossil fuels will die a sudden death at the hands of renewables, you are mistaken. Coal power plants or diesel cars are the mainstay of the world economy and will remain so for the next few decades. Green energy might replace fossil fuels in the future, but it will be a long and slow process.
Drastic New Technologies
Does this mean that no new technologies/innovations will come and change the world? The answer is Yes, there will be technologies that will disrupt the status quo. These technologies will cause tremendous upheaval and replace existing technologies in a short time frame. The internet and mobile phones have done it in the past 30 years. They made technologies that existed for decades obsolete in a few years. But few experts predicted the dominance of these 2. Internet, in its rudimentary form, had existed for decades, but no one prophesied that it will rule the world in such a short time. Same applies to the mobile phones. Although experts make hundreds of forecasts every year, few if any predicted the omnipresence of internet or mobile phones.
"Some technologies change our world overnight, but because of the nature of such changes and the randomness of our world, these changes are impossible to predict. It is a fool's errand trying to predict the future, but our history is littered with such attempts " Pushkar Singh.
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