Does Technology Ever Change Anything?
Supposedly we live in an age of innovation in which every new startup is going to change the world forever. If you believe the breathless pundits, smartphone apps and video conferencing has changed humanity and “game-changers” are everywhere around us.
In reality, however, what’s interesting is how very little we’ve changed at all. In fact, it’s possible to argue that only a handful of new technologies have ever fundamentally changed the way we live.
The first breakthough technology, which occurred somewhere between 200,000 years ago and 1,700,000 year ago was fire. This enabled us to cook our food, which made consumption and digestion faster and easier as well as reducing the risk of food poisoning from rotting meat. Fire also provided warmth during cold seasons and may even have enabled many of our species to survive the most recent ice age.
Fire genuinely was a game-changing technology. From fire we ultimately were able to develop smelting, which gave us the bronze age and the iron age and all of our technological marvels today.
The next breakthrough technology was agriculture. When certain species of grass developed a genetic mutation around 11,000 years ago that caused the seed kernel to detach more easily from the stalk it became possible for humans to develop threshing, an activity which yielded far more calories than it consumed. We learned to plant some of the seeds, and soon the calorie surplus enabled specialization and permanent habitation which ultimately led to the growth of towns and then cities, which changed human society forever.
From small moderately egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, vast hierarchical societies with complex laws sprung forth. And arising directly from the need to count and codify we became the first species on Earth to develop ways to record our thoughts: writing and mathematics were born.
Although many argue that the invention of printing changed society, the reality is that it was an improvement over hand-copying manuscripts but did not enable a totally new kind of society to emerge.
The next true major change was the development of fossil-fuel based power. For the first time in history we were no longer reliant on muscle power or the vagaries of wind to organize the world around us. The Industrial Revolution changed the face of the planet and led to highly structured environments such as offices and schools. For the first time in human history, large groups of people gathered together in the same place for many hours each day in order to receive a pre-determined amount of income by working standard hours doing standard jobs. This was a radical transformation that few seem to have commented on adequately, and it changed our way of thinking entirely. Time was now a matter of mechanical seconds and minutes and hours, each one of which could be translated into a financial consequence.
Our ability to transform our environment became superhuman, and we’re beginning to realize the awful consequences only today.
These three major innovations changed humanity beyond all recognition. They each changed our conception of what it means to be human.
So now (small drum roll), let’s look at the much-hyped products of the hi-tech industry.
Google comes top of our list for no particular reason. But what is Google really for most people? Just a more convenient dictionary or encyclopedia or yellow pages. Facebook meanwhile is merely electronic graffiti. SnapGram and InstaTweet and all the other ephemeral distractions are merely the mental equivalent of children’s toys and add nothing substantial to anyone’s life.
Smartphones enable us to do what we were doing before (talking to each other) but at a greater distance and texting is just less literate letter writing. Zoom et al enable us to… interact with each other, as we’ve been doing since before we were a distinct primate species. Laptops are more convenient than using typewriters or pressing cut reeds into soft clay tablets but fundamentally no different because these are all methods of recording words and pictures and numbers and symbols in non-acoustic fashion.
Automobiles and airplanes likewise let us do what we’ve always done, which is cover the distance between point A and point B; they simply let us do so in greater ease and with greater speed. But the tsunami of mindless nationalism/populism that’s swept the world since 2015 and the recent shut-our-borders nonsense over SARS-CoV2 shows that all our travel and learning about other cultures over the last sixty years hasn’t changed what we fundamentally are: a simple-minded species in which each of us is desperate to affiliate with a group, and thereby reflexively mark everyone else as non-group and thus to be distrusted and feared.
As for the Internet in general, we’ve always gossiped and told tall tales and lied to the credulous. The process simply happens faster now and at greater scale. And regarding autonomous electric vehicles: they are no different in principle from ordinary vehicles or simply having slaves pull carts laden with hay (although EVs are infinitely more polluting than slaves or oxen when their total lifecycle is taken into account).
Stepping back from glossy hi-tech, what about electricity? According to some commentators, the advent of artificial light freed us from the cycles of sunrise and sunset. In reality, however, most people work during the day and sleep at night. We gawp at Netflix in the evenings rather than read or sew by candlelight, but electricity changed surprisingly little of how we live. Our food is less perishable now we have refrigeration but the things most people consume are so unhealthy that we could be better served if perishability were increased.
Pharmacology has undoubtedly changed a few things over the last seventy years. Basic hygiene means fewer illnesses, but we were making soap thousands of years ago. Antibiotics were a great step forward but we’re negating them rapidly by absurd overuse: doctors hand out antibiotics like candy, the agricultural industry pours them into livestock, and we even add them to soap. All this means that drug-resistant bacteria have evolved rapidly and it’s estimated that unless we find radically new ways to combat bacterial infection, by 2040 we will have returned to the pre-antibiotic age in which even a scratch can lead to death.
Furthermore, antibiotics are not as new as we think: before the Catholic Church exterminated them across Europe, old women carried on ancient traditions in which poultices (mushed bread on which penicillin would grow) were used to treat infection and it was customary in the ancient world to mix wine with water as it was known that this led to fewer gastrointestinal problems (we now know the alcohol killed some of the bacteria present in the water). As for the “contraception revolution” of the 1960s, much celebrated by the likes of Philip Larkin, once again it was simply an improvement over previous ways of achieving the same results, which date nearly as far back as recorded history.
When we step back and look at our innovations, therefore, two things become apparent. The first is that there are very, very few truly transformational technologies in human history. The second is that for all its hype and gloss, hi-tech succeeds most often when it simply allows us to do what we’ve always done.
Which means it’s the opposite of transformational: it’s just more of the same but with a thin veneer of novelty.
So the clear message for venture investors is this: place your bets on companies that merely offer more of the same, but with new glitter and sparkles. Like magpies, we humans just can’t resist a shiny new bauble or scrap of something glinting in the grass of our quotidian existence. Especially when we’re told it’s the newest Next Big Thing.