Rant on Technology

OK here is a myth that I'd like to explode (or at least be provocative about). Technology is NOT inevitable.

Say what?

We humans think that technology increases steadily. With every space shuttle and iPod, humanity advances by one small step. Sort of like that image of the ape walking more and more upright

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... yeah that one. But the steady progress of technology is a myth.

Then how does it advance? Punctuated equilibrium? Not really. Humans are adept at finding tricks and shortcuts. We're natural-born cheaters.

There I've said it.

All of our technologies are exactly that. Tricks. Brute force never works. Instead, scientists, developers and inventors stumble upon a random phenomenon ... and then it hits them. "Hey guys, we can use this to solve x, y and z." Other times we apply a pre-existing technology to a different problem. We are masters of exploiting what we have, but terrible in coming up with technology from scratch. And we exploit these tricks and shortcuts over and over again to solve as many problems as possible.

Here's an example. Structural biology. Want to figure out how a protein is shaped? Well we can't look at it with a microscope. We can't easily model its folding on a computer. No, one day some guy realized that you can apply a magnet to a sample and see how the nuclei get excited, resonate with the magnetic pulse, then relax.

Say what? NMR (as in nuclear magnetic resonance).

Some other bloke figured that if you can line up proteins into a regular array and bounce X-rays off of the proteins, lined up nuclei can amplify the signal.

Say what? X-ray crystallography.

We've been using these two tricks for a while now, but they have many problems. NMR produces low resolution images, and as for crystallography ... not every protein can be easily crystallized. And we're lucky if we can get the structure of an enzyme in all catalytic states. We're trying hard, and recently we've had cryo-EM (yes microscopy) ... but WE HAVEN'T STUMBLED ONTO ANY OTHER SHORTCUTS THAT WOULD ALLOW FOR BETTER PROTEIN STRUCTURE DETERMINATIONS. We're stuck.

You may still think that we humans are so smart. Then how come we haven't harnessed fusion energy yet? Sure we can build H-bombs, but a fusion power plant? The answer is that we just don't have all the necessary cheat sheets required to make it happen. We need serendipitous findings A, B and C. And it's possible that we've already made some of these findings. Maybe if the US government poured money into fusion power, some federally funded engineer will reread some neat paper on nanotubes ... and bingo we're no longer drilling for oil.

There are two implications from this concept of technological advance:

1) Basic research is damn important. If you want to stumble onto tricks, the best line of attack is to study all sorts of stuff. By looking at all sorts of crazy phenomena found in nature, we increase our repertoire of random knowledge. Don't forget, it's the guys that look at the moldy old petridishes who discovered penicillin.

2) Although scientists, developers, and engineers may solve some of our problems, they will not be able to solve all of them. We need to drill this idea in our head. Too many times I read the rantings of market worshiping thinkers or "futurists" who declare that science will eventually solve all of society's ills ... so don't worry. Yeah right. We humans can solve certain problems, but not other problems. We will never have ALL the answers. It all depends on our bag of tricks.

So that's why all those folks from the 1950s were wrong about our flying cars or our regularly scheduled trips to Mars. Instead, some guy fiddling around with thistle balls stumbled on a clever way of reversibly fastening two items together - Velcro! Another adapted a phone call into a computer-to-computer communications device. But we're not the Jetsons.

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Righto.

I've often argued that technological advances are more akin to biological evolution than to Intelligent Design.

Every advance is built upon a pre-existing base and often the result of good luck.
Nobody invented the 747. It evolved from Lilienthal's glider, which was itself based upon birds.
(One of the Wright Brothers came up with wing warping by absent-mindedly twisting an inner tube box in his hands!)

.....Don't forget, it's the guys that look at the moldy old petridishes who discovered penicillin.

The best of many thousands of examples.

But I would argue that as long as there still exist free societies with a free flow of information and good basic education, technological advance is inevitable.
It might take a while to achieve fusion power, but 100 Tb iPods with VR cranial implants are just around the corner.
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By Ick of the East (not verified) on 06 Jun 2006 #permalink

I agree (to a certain extent) that scientific progress is the result of applying the right cheat sheet to the right phenomena. But I still believe that the process that goes into observing, and contemplating the phenomenon itself signifies progress. Sure a cheat sheet or neat trick would show the way out of what seems like a blind alley, but moving on from there, understanding and digesting the implications of this new path is more systematic and signifies technological advance. Technology might not provide all the answer in itself, but the right application (or non-application) of technology does provide a damn fine tool in solving most problems!

I've often argued that technological advances are more akin to biological evolution than to Intelligent Design.

Yes I guess the proper analogy would be exaptation.

Also I think that given the right conditions, technology does advance and society will always come up with nifty new gadgets ... but any single technology (say fusion power) is not inevitable.

This reminds me of the book "The Evotionlution of Everyday things" by Henri Petroski. In this book he argues that engineering and degsign are driven not by pure innovation (the proverbial lightbulb) but rather they are driven by the need to solve some problem with a pre-existing technology. I like this post because I never really thought about this in terms of science, but I definitely agree.

Petroski also argues that things keep moving forward because no solution is perfect and also, a solution to one problem may also make other things possible that then create new situations with new problems to solve. Look at all the problems technology itself has created - for example: industrial revolution + cars = pollution and smog. Or how about advances in medicine that have increased life span of humans (which few would say is bad) - only to reveal tons of problems with aging like cancer, arthritis and dementia that have created a huge need for life sciences and medical research.

Like you said, technology will move us forward, but it's not inevitable that it will move us forward to solve all critical problems of mankind.

Technology is overrated. Now where did I leave my iPod?

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 06 Jun 2006 #permalink

I kinda like R.A. Heinlein's hypothesis that all the technological progress was made by lazy people - those who did not like doing things the old, hard way, so they invented an easier way. Thus, the cause of human progress is lazyness.

That semi-non-serious idea aside, I agree with you that nothing is inevitable in technological progress - it is evolving by tinkering, just like organic evolution. Actually, one of the best talks about evolution I saw barely touched on biology - it was a Bill Wimsatt's talk about evolution of engines - in painstaking, yet exciting detail.

Sorry betty, for some reason your comment was rated as spam. Maybe it was the arithmetic signs? or the word medicine? (90% of my spam is for cheep drugs)

You make a good point about how new technologies not only solve problems but create new problems. Also there are many unintended effects. Many would argue that computers have made life simpler, however in the end we work just as hard because more is expected of us. So have we benefited from computers? Sure GNP goes up, but so does our stress level. (yeah I know I'm goofing off using my laptop right now ...)

Actually, brute force does work... it's just slow. The space shuttle is one example of pure, brute force technology (as is the fusion program). You can make just about anything work with enough effort - but it's expensive, and prone to failure. The plus side is that as you build it, you learn from your problems, and you gain tricks (both scientific and engineering).

As for proteins imaging - just wait a little while for the superlens technology to mature. http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2005/04/21_superlens.shtml