Kevin Werbach made an interesting observation recently: the two-and-half-year tech crash has now lasted as long as the tech bubble did. It seems like a long time. For many of us involved in technology, the daily routine of going to tech websites every morning may not have changed much. What has changed is the pace everything just seems so much slower. That buzz of new things happening almost on a daily basis has long since disappeared. Even as venture capital investment has dropped sharply, the flow of innovative ideas has gone down dramatically taking with it many a promising start-up.
Writing in the Financial Times (October 3, 2002), Richard Tomkins makes a fervent appeal for science and technology to put us back on the road to utopia:
It was possible to believe we were heading towards utopia when science and technology were giving us such marvels as domestic electricity, the telephone, the motor car, the aeroplane, refrigeration, plastic, films, radio and television.
By the mid-20th century we were so bedazzled by the wonders of technological progress that we began imagining a future in which machines would relieve us of the drudgery of work, leaving us free to live a life of aesthetic contemplation. Meals would be replaced with food pills, moving pavements would transport us along the streets and people would live in space colonies on Mars.
Instead, what happened? We got the internet. Well, thanks, but we are singularly unimpressed. Sure, advances in information technology have had a big impact on business – hence those dotcom-era magazines such as Fast Company and books such as Bill Gates’s Business @ the Speed of Thought – but their effect on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people has been minimal. Outside work, the internet has had much less impact than, say, the washing machine, which helped free women from centuries of domestic drudgery and enabled them to enter the workforce.
If people were worried by the pace of technological change, the time they should have been most worried was a century ago, when inventions were arriving helter-skelter – not just little inventions that made incremental improvements to people’s lives but mind-boggling, world-changing inventions, such as railways, that transformed the fabric of society.
In fact, we seemed to adjust to those technological changes quite easily. What bugs us now is that the last big inventions to have significantly changed our lives – television and the passenger jet – came half a century ago and we are perplexed by the failure of science and technology to have come up with much since.
One can argue about the merits of some of the points made by Tomkins, but one thing is clear: technology needs to find its groove once again.
Tomorrow: India as Proxy