Often the term technology explosion is used to indicate the rapid growth of technology in areas such as information technology or biotechnology. Usually, the assumption is that innovation creates great new approaches and products that will improve our conditions. Often this advance is true and beneficial but do we really want technology advances to explode? The word explode is often associated with reactions that are out of control and usually cause significant damage. We often feel some technology out of our control when we are bombarded with new IT systems that promise efficiencies but often are incompatible with each other and shift the burden of the workflow. The unintended consequences of lost knowledge, inflexibility, and frustration with integrated systems do not seem to be adequately considered.
It seems as if the systems were designed for the common or average situations. Would you drive across a bridge that was designed only for the average traffic? Compare this to the Pareto principle (or 80/20 rule) that 80% of the problems often come from 20% of features (often the exceptions). Often the combination of systems ignores the exceptions. The trend in changing computer security is pushing the corporate computers to a state of being secure but less capable of accomplishing tasks. Another example is the use of technology to make things so efficient (in the normal situations) that it collapses in the exceptional circumstances. I had an encounter with such a situation recently where the airlines filled their planes to capacity. However, a storm caused some flights to be canceled leaving me stranded for 3 days in trying to go from one large city to another. The efficiency was so high that there was no slack in the system to accommodate the exceptions.
To cause an explosion, certain conditions need to be realized. Often this includes assembling a critical mass of energetic material such that the autocatalytic reaction grows without significant losses due to boundary effects, absorption, or loss of catalysts.
I recently read Jack Goldstone's 2009 book "Why Europe?" which reflects on the potential causes of the sustained growth in science and industrial revolution in Europe. As of 1500 (and some would say 1800), Europe was behind in industrial technology. This can be seen in the need for England to try to identify an item that it could trade with China for the items Europeans clamored for such as porcelain, silk, and tea. The item eventually found was opium which led to wars in the mid 19th century to secure the trade in this addicting substance.
Why didn't Chinese, Indian, or Arabian civilizations develop the sustained technology growth before with their advanced discoveries and leading science and mathematics? Goldstone identifies a combination of factors that led to the growth in Europe which borrowed much from other cultures but formed a combination of ideas into the critical mass in Europe. These factors included combining the approaches of experiments, math, instrument making, and the social conditions of networks of community interest and societies in a religiously tolerant environment. The previous backwardness of Europe may have set the trigger in that the rapid influx of discoveries coming from the New World and previous inventions arriving from other lands challenged their fundamental beliefs.
The example of James Watt is often highlighted as exhibiting many of the necessary networked conditions. He was an instrument maker at a university with scientific society connections, that also had financial connections in a newly energetic Scotland that was out to prove itself after joining with England.
But why did these conditions come together in Europe? There are many levels to address the question why. One example of a more fundamental reasoning was suggested that Europe has a geography that led to sustained trade but difficult to unify. This would require many peninsulas and inland barriers to maintain different independent states with a variety of sizes. One measure of this is the fractal dimension of the coastline. Compared with east, south and western Asia, the coastline of Europe is very fractured and is higher than the others.
I recently published a paper exploring the population trends of the leading capitalist countries from the Netherlands in the 17th century through England, then expanding to the UK, then to the U.S. in the 20th century. The leadership remained for about 100 years but could be locally maintained if the area of growth was expanded (e.g. England forming a wider U.K.). At first, the leading country, the Netherlands, was relatively small but was able to form financial innovations along with religious toleration. Its location was between the more powerful countries of France, Germany, and England. Unlike the leadership of Spain, its economic growth was fueled by sustained investment and trading in bulk goods such as lumber (along the Rhine) and fish. After a number of naval wars with England, the transition to English leadership was cemented in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Dutch king was put on the English throne as William III (of William and Mary fame). The population condition seems to be that the leadership moves to a country that has about twice the population at the time of the transition. This continues for the other transitions as well. The larger population was able to sustain the growth and form new organizations to handle the more complex issues.
This growth in the application of technology seems to continue. From historical trends, it seems like leadership lasts for about 100 years as new issues arise and are resolved. I think that this should be a consideration when technology offers radically new but untested solutions. We want to maintain the growth and application but do not want to see a technology explosion where unintended consequences accumulate to a point where the system is useless or collapses.
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