More on Stalled Technologies

11 February 2009

To speak of “stalled technologies”, as I did day before yesterday in my The Law of Stalled Technologies, is a little tendentious, and it might perhaps be better to talk about this phenomenon in terms of “mature technologies” or “durable technologies” or even “perennial technologies.” Previously I mentioned tire chains as an example of a robust and durable technology. They are likely to be with us for a while. And while there is every reason to believe that we will see improvements in this technology — better alloys, better latching mechanisms, etc. — these improvements, however, will not be revolutionary.


What is a mature technology? One definition would be a technology no longer capable of, or not likely to experience, revolutionary improvements. Somewhere in the past couple of years I read an article that said there were more horses in use in the world than ever before in history. That surprised me, and I expect the publication of the statistic was intended to be surprising, as throughout the developed world horses are merely recreational and have been replaced in any and all utilitarian roles. But I have, in the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, personally seen horses used for plowing on two different continents, in Slovakia and Chile. These were not tourist demonstrations, but rather people far in the countryside making use of a durable technology.

Horse-drawn plowing in rural Slovakia, 1992

Horse-drawn plowing in rural Slovakia, 1992

The technology of transportation and agriculture powered by horses is robust and durable. Horses are eminently sustainable. Two horses can create more horses, and they can feed themselves off a decent piece of ground, which they can also help to fertilize. If you treat them well, they will give you decades of good service. Horse-drawn plows were brought to a high state of development in North America in the nineteenth century. Similar considerations hold for the tack and yoke to hook a team to a plow. Also for saddles. With Saddles, you have your choice between Western and English (I prefer Western, but then again I am a born Westerner), but with either you get a technology perfected over hundreds of years. Some of the best Western saddles in the world are made in Pendleton, Oregon, and I am sure there must be an ancient saddlery in England making traditional English saddles.

it doesn't get much better than this.

A Severe Bothers saddle: it doesn't get much better than this.

Saddles, tack, yokes, plows, and related horse gear are not likely to experience radical or revolutionary improvement, but it is likely to remain in use so long as both our species and horses continue in existence. If you were to plant a human colony on a new planet somewhere, even if you took the colonists there on starships, you would do much better to supply them with durable nineteenth century technology such as I have been describing than to leave them with a tractor that requires an industrial infrastructure in order to keep it working. Sure, they should also have some small, highly portable high technology devices, but these aren’t things that will mean that you will die or starve to death if they stop working.

Got an industrial infrastructure handy to keep this thing running?

Got an industrial infrastructure handy to keep this thing running?

Mature technologies are a wonderful thing. They deserve our respect, not our contempt. From an avant garde perspective they are dull and predictable, but mature technologies keep people alive. This is one of the problems with most futurisms: they fail to see that the mass of people are kept alive by mature, durable technologies. We simply don’t have the economic resources to suddenly tear out the infrastructure that keeps us all alive and replace it with something else, even if that something else is better. Thus a technology that is revolutionary in and of itself, is adopted gradually and incrementally. This is due not least to the fact that a revolutionary technology requires a revolutionary maintenance regime.

There are good reasons for the gradual adoption of revolutionary technologies. We have already mentioned above the economics of technology adoption: it is expensive to replace one technology with another. There is a further economic incentive for being a late adopter, and that is the longer you wait, the cheaper and better the technology becomes. Also, you don’t want to trust your life to something untested: when it is about knowing where your next meal is coming from, society rightly errs on the side of caution, and this is one source of perennial social conservatism.

A few days ago I mentioned Kurzweil’s prediction that, by 2009 most text would be input by voice recognition software. Within the past few months there was a piece of the BBC of someone predicting that almost all computer mice would cease to be used within five years. I laughed when I read that. There will be plenty of “late adopters” like myself who will hang on to their keyboards and their mice. I can tell you that even if all the world gives up their mice for something “better” within the next five years, I will hang on to mine if only to be a contrarian.

Futurologists, in their enthusiasm for what comes next, rarely take pure cussedness into account. We must expect that even if the Technological Singularity arrives as scheduled in 2045, we won’t all necessarily want to immediately take advantage of its dubious “benefits.” Yes, we may someday transcend our biology, but that will take some pretty clever engineering. We have to expect that the first few models of “singulatarians” will be pretty buggy and strictly for early adopters who are willing to put up with little technological hiccups such as a memory dump that would cause you to forget all your life before you were technologically augmented.

This man may be an early adopter of the technological singularity, but I won't be.

This man may be an early adopter of the technological singularity, but I won't be.

. . . . .

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