Rant on Technology

I should be walking around the family olive grove by now. Here is yet another old post from last year.

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


... 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.


More like this

I was a bit struck by this phenomena a few weeks back. Applied materials has started to sell equipment for producing thinn film solar cells. The interesting thing is that the technology base came from efforts in large screen display technology.

But your original discussion was about tech being on a monotonic increase (or not). In todays world it seems to be, unless we start destroying information. That has happened in the past. Usually it has to do with a new religion. But given the complexity of todays science and technology, simple refusal by future generations to do the hard work to understand what we already know could be sufficient for a decline.

"We're stuck" ? Be patient.

When in doubt, use brute force - K.Thompson

P.S. Don't tag this "off topic"