Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Technology Changes

I have been reading a book entitled, A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium, by Robert Friedel (MIT Press, 2007).  Friedel's book is a high-level overview of a thousand years of Western technology.  But his book is not simply intended to give yet another review of everything from water-wheels to steam engines.  Friedel asks the question, "Why did the West [meaning Europe and America] continue on an upward technology trajectory for the past thousand years?"  He postulates two basic reasons: a culture of improvement, and ever better means of capturing new ideas.

I don't intend to write a review of Friedel's book here.  I haven't read enough of it yet.  From what I have read, however, I am not finding that Friedel provides many explicit examples to support his thesis.  He covers a lot of technology areas but he doesn't get at the motivational aspects as well as I had hoped. This left me wondering, "Why do things change?" Certainly, there are lots and lots of examples of rigidity to change.  We can all recall expressions like, "Because we've always done it this way."

From my point of view, I see technology change as being motivated by three different causes.  The first (and simplest) reason is because it makes our lives easier.  Why carry the bundle of wood if I can do the same job by putting it on a wheeled cart?  Why carry water from the well if I can lay some pipes into the house?  Basically, changes that come about from a desire to make things easier saves us sweat, time, money, or scarce resources.  While I mentioned money, the motivation is not making money but saving money.

The second basic motivation for technology change is making money - the more, the better.  By inventing an electric lightbulb that replaced gas lighting, Edison made a fortune.  And to be clear, his motivation was indeed to make a fortune. If I had invented the cellphone to replace the land-line telephone, I would be living like a king.  The motivation is wealth and the vehicle is a business, selling something new, better, or different.  A business person is less motivated directly by a change per se than how much he or she can make by selling the new product or service.

The third basic motivation (and probably the least common in everyday life) is the pure psychic juice that an inventor gets out of creating, much like the artist derives satisfaction from creating.  There might be a secondary motivation of labor-savings or making money but the prime mover is creative joy.  It seems to me that true inventors, more often than not, invent more than one thing.  Many are serial inventors who just keep moving from one invention to the next for the creative "high" it gives them. This is not to say that any of their inventions have to be successful selling in the marketplace.  The inventor has to invent just like the painter has to paint.

The other point I would add about the second motivation of making money that differentiates it from the other two is that competition is a positive spur to innovation.  The inventor is not so much driven by competition as creativity.  The desire to make your own life easier doesn't require a competitor.

To summarize, my three candidates for why technology changes are 1) to make life easier, 2) to make money, and 3) as an act of creation.   There is no rocket science here, but I think the motivations are so fundamental to most people that it is hard to see how technology could not change.  We have all experienced each of these motivations, even if we didn't always follow through on them.

All of the motivations I have outlined are at the level of the individual. I think the answer to Friedel's question of why the West has advanced might lie in things beyond individual motivation.  To give just a couple of  examples, Europe has always been made up of numerous countries under differing governments, competing with each other for power, wealth, and territory.  As time progressed, power and wealth were decided as much in the marketplace as they were on the battlefield.  Competition between countries fosters innovation as surely as it does between competing companies.  

Another reason that Europe accelerated so dramatically was also tied to the fact that there were numerous countries - countries who traded with each other.  Trade is cooperative and, unlike competition, fostered the transfer of technology between seller and buyer.  If Europe had been homogeneous (more like China in that era), perhaps there would have been less trade or rivalry and hence less rapid technological advancement.

So what?  The reason to think about these things is so that people can contribute as best they can to improving our situation.  We need inventors.  We need innovators.  We need improvers.  Our standard of living is embedded in technology change.  I like the life we enjoy in the United States.  We ignore innovation at our own risk.

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