Recently a self-driving truck made a cross-country delivery. That’s pretty neat! And has many wide-ranging economic and social implications.
But: the technologies that got the truck there were not particularly new. The truck was powered by an internal combustion engine, which dates to the 19th century. Its sensors were based on cameras, radar and lasers, the most recent of which was born in 1960. The information was processed by a computer, the parameters of which were set by the Sixties.
Where are the new technologies?
Now when I say that, I am keenly aware that whenever a person says “Why isn’t anyone doing ,” it practically always means that is in fact being done, but the person making the statement doesn’t know it. I am well aware that I am leaving myself wide open for this.
But to me–perhaps in my ignorance–it seems like we’re not seeing the dramatic new technologies that transformed the world in the past two centuries. That’s a little scary. It’s the new technologies that powered the Unprecedented Era and its great benefits for humankind.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that there are just such technologies in play right now, and I just don’t know about them. I hope we are on the brink of such transformative change once more. I hope that the Age of Wonders in which we live will continue.
But I have to admit it doesn’t quite look that way to me right now.
Please, disillusion me.
From the invention of the telegraph and photography, media and communications technology proceeded so quickly that future historians may see them not as separate technologies, but as different phases in the development of one thing.
Until the Unprecedented Era, technology and natural philosophy were separate. When gunpowder was developed, it was because it worked, not because anyone realized that sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate could be combined to produce an explosive (as opposed to nitroglycerin, which was developed from chemistry). When medieval peasants spread marl on their fields, they didn’t know they were returning calcium and magnesium to the soil. They had no idea what was happening. They just knew it increased yields.
Which doesn’t mean that a natural philosopher, if asked, would not have come up with an explanation of why it increased yields. Great men of learning, with long forked beards and impressive academic robes, did not get to their status by shrugging their shoulders and mumbling “I dunno.” If anyone ever inquired, they would have had long and elegant theories, rife with Aristotle and Plato. And if any other natural philosophers had been within earshot, they probably would have produced their own theories, leading to extensive and erudite debate.
And they all would have been wrong. Just because you have an explanation–even an impressive explanation–doesn’t mean that explanation has the slightest connection to reality.