Bipolar Technology

Sunday’s post has me thinking about other ways my outlook on technology has changed as I’ve been exposed to more of its underbelly. In particular, how I’ve softened my derision towards technology that doesn’t actually allow us to do anything new.

From what I can tell, there are two main ‘modes’ in which technology moves forward:

  1. By reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ (energy, material, manpower) necessary to do the same things we could before.
  2. By giving us the ability to do something we couldn’t do before.

 Examples of the first mode are everywhere, but one of my favorites is the fact that it used to be a feat of strength to crush a soda can with a single hand while now people do it instinctively. It’s not that we have all become stronger through secret infusions of super-soldier serum, but because functional cans can now be made with far less aluminum.

 I would argue that the majority of innovations fall into this category, a fact that I used to find depressing. Sure, increasing efficiency saved money, resources and time, but it just felt so … boring and uninspired (this is arrogant past-me thinking.) It was like putting a little bit more mud on the mud castle that someone had built before you. 

 The key that I missed was that without the first type of advance, the second would never happen. It is exactly the extra time, energy, and money saved by increases in efficiency that allows us to develop brand-new capabilities. It’s another way of seeing continuous changes leading to tipping points and discrete changes.

 

  

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