Lawrence Solomon: We’re technological laggards

(June 29, 2015) Google, Apple and other so-called technology companies don’t look like much compared to the giants of a century ago.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, was first published by the National Post

History will look on them — and on our age — as wanting in breakthrough technological achievements, a time marked more by technological sizzle than steak.

History will look on them — and on our age — as wanting in breakthrough technological achievements, a time marked more by technological sizzle than steak.

We’re told we live in The Internet Age, The Information Age, The Technological Age. The Internet Age? Certainly. The Information Age? Yes, if information is judged by access to it rather than its quality. The Technological Age? Certainly not, if by that we mean that our society has been advancing technologically in leaps and bounds, in ways previously unimagined. Most of those who are today lauded as technology giants — the Googles, the Apples, the Facebooks, the Amazons — are giants in business but not in technological prowess. History will look on them — and on our age — as wanting in breakthrough technological achievements, a time marked more by technological sizzle than steak.

The Internet has undeniably changed our lives, chiefly by speeding communications and allowing us to obtain an immense variety of goods and services online. But in most respects, we live much as our parents and grandparents did, relying on the same recognizable means of travel, enjoying the same recognizable forms of entertainment, employing the same recognizable types of appliances in our homes.

Today there is no Edison, whose free spirit and inquiring mind blessed us with some 1100 inventions.

That could not have been said of our counterparts a century ago, whose lives were revolutionized by inventions we continue to depend on today. The automobile, and Henry Ford’s assembly line, launched one of the world’s greatest industries and fundamentally changed our living and traveling patterns. Edison, after perfecting the light bulb, installed the first electricity generating plant in JP Morgan’s home and launched another great industry that also immeasurably transformed the world. Alexander Graham Bell in that same era began what we now know as the telecom industry. The airplane, the radio, the phonograph, the motion picture likewise transformed the culture, soon to be followed by television, creating giants of industry that changed almost every aspect of how we worked and played.

In contrast, today’s technology giants appear awfully small. Google, perhaps the company most go gaga over, is stolidly in the advertising business, its genius coming not from a fundamental technological advance — search engines were in popular use before it won its monopoly — but through improvements in the efficiency of advertising. Google’s attempts to profit from innovations other than its search engine — the overwhelming source of its revenue — have mostly fallen flat, as googling “Google’s failures” will attest. Neither has the Google brain trust been good at picking economically viable technological winners: Its many flounders include attempts at renewable energy, such as its $168 million investment in Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which needed a $539 million federal bailout after needing a $1.6 billion federal loan.

Like Google, the immense worth of other “technology” giants such as Twitter and Facebook stems from their value to advertisers, not from pathbreaking innovation. Amazon, also considered a technology giant, is but a Sears catalog on steroids. Apple’s value is in its extraordinary design. The Internet itself is hardly new — it was conceived in 1934, in the same era of the revolutionary inventions, and then made practical by Vinton Cerf, considered the “Father of the Internet,” when working on a U.S. military project called ARPAnet in the 1960s. The computer dates back to Alan Turing’s 1936 Universal Turing Machine, the basis of his Enigma machine that famously broke the Nazi code during World War II.

In the robust technological age of the decades bookending 1900, inventions revolutionized our lives because, unlike technological playthings, they had immense economic value, ensuring their rapid ascent to mass markets. In 1877 Edison discovered how to record and playback sound. In 1878 he established the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to sell his new invention. The invention of the movie was also brought to market quickly. In 1888, Edison directed his staff to develop “…an instrument which does for the Eye what the Phonograph has done for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion….” He patented his motion picture device in 1889, had a prototype by 1892 and the first movie studio by 1893.

In our generation, inventions are rarely inventive and rarely brought to market in a matter of a few years, partly because government directs research directly through grants and indirectly through its policies; partly because government regulations retard development; partly because political correctness numbs many of our best minds into conformity; partly because economics no longer rules in directing and disciplining invention. Solar technologies, despite billions in government research funds spent since the first UN-inspired Earth Day in 1970, remains an immature technology that is economic only in niche applications such as solar calculators and remote locations. Ditto for wind turbines. Ditto for carbon sequestration and the countless other climate-change-inspired technologies. Today’s sole game-changing energy revolution — hydraulic fracking, which first came into use in 1949 — has taken off because it became economic, unlike the renewables.

Today’s retarded pace of invention affects even government initiatives, which in the past rapidly achieved fruition, despite the mind-boggling immensity of the undertakings. The Manhattan Project began with a $6000 grant in 1940; in 1945 the first nuclear bomb was detonated at a military base in New Mexico. In 1961, President Kennedy astonishingly announced that the United States would that decade send a man to the moon. In 1969 Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, announcing “a giant leap for mankind.”

Those magnificent, almost incomprehensible technological accomplishments — full of daring and a sense that there are no limits to man’s potential — are no more. The bold space missions are effectively on hold, as are the inventions we cannot conceive of. Today there is no Edison, whose free spirit and inquiring mind blessed us with some 1100 inventions. Instead, the inventors of today plod along safe, well-trodden fields, giving us better cars and better search engines, better things of all descriptions, including things that have no economic value. Unlike the inventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the inventions of the late 20th and early 21st century are mostly all small steps, rather than giant leaps for mankind.

The original version of this article is available here at the publisher’s website

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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