Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Climbing the Wrong Technological Hills

When I was a kid, I remember being told how amazing it was that the Aztecs built their great cities without the wheel, and thinking: "How the heck did they miss that one?" I couldn't fathom that millions of people had gone centuries without ever noticing that round things roll, and that could be useful for moving things around.

This article, on the development of rocketry as our means of reaching space, made me resolve to go a little easier on the Aztecs. The main point the author, Neal Stephenson, makes several times is that only a highly unlikely series of events led to the development of space-going rockets, and now we are wedded to that technology to the point that newer, better methods of getting off this planet are extremely difficult to develop.

I've always assumed, naively, that once we make discoveries in the basic sciences, that eventually we will appreciate the technological possibilities and make new and better stuff. The theoretical understanding of how to split the atom leads to fission bombs and nuclear power plants in a relatively straight line, because the rewards of technological innovation are so high. But, as the case of rocketry indicates, often technological innovation is haphazard, messy, and driven by the incidentals of history and personality.

So, my first question: how many great technologies could potentially be developed based on the theoretical knowledge we have, but aren't being created because of basic human oversight?

Then, the flip side: once a technological system is sufficiently developed, and bound up with all the other human institutions (government, the law, social expectations, finance and the like), what technologies suddenly become unappealing to develop because their adoption would depend on unlikely changes to these complex systems? I've joked before about wanting my flying car: would we have them if a flying car wouldn't lead to massive challenges to the air traffic control system, to our system of personal and corporate liability, to civic noise ordinances?

Which leads to my second question: how many great technologies will be smothered in the cradle because a society as complex as ours creates insurmountable barriers to certain types of innovation?

We've heard a lot recently about entrepreneurship being the key to revitalizing our economy. But the entrepreneur may be unable to break down the barriers to innovation erected by our laws, our systems, the past decisions of other innovators, and just plain old inertia.

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