5 February 2011

#H800 - Week1 - Technological Innovations and the First Law (of technology)

How are technological innovations adopted by a society?  The First Law of Technology (also dubbed Amara's Law) states that technological innovations are overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term.

In an article for the Observer, OU professor John Naughton, explains the Law by referring to the invention of the printing press.

They didn't know, for example, that Gutenberg's technology, which enabled lay people to read and interpret the bible for themselves, would undermine the authority of the Catholic church and fuel the Reformation. Or that it would enable the rise of modern science by facilitating the rapid and accurate dissemination of ideas. Or create new social classes of clerks, teachers and intellectuals. Or alter our conception of 'childhood' as a protected early stage in the lives of young people. In an oral culture, childhood effectively ended at the age when an individual could be regarded as a competent communicator, ie, about seven - which is why the Vatican defined that as 'the age of reason' after which individuals could be held accountable for their sins.

The article makes a nice attempt to try to generalize how (technological) innovations are adopted in a society.  It keeps a neutral tone, but doesn't try to offer a deeper explanation about the Law.

The overestimation part relates to what we call "hypes" about new technologies.  It would be interesting to learn about the origins of this overestimation.  Is it related to "salespeople" trying to sell or get funding for their latest thing?  Or is it related to the tendency to find everything that is new exciting 'for a while, until we find something else?  Gardner's hype cycle of emerging technologies is interesting in this respect.  I found the argument in the article not very clear though.  It seems like the invention of the printing press wasn't really overestimated, it had a huge impact right away.  I didn't find that there was a period of inflated expectations with this particular innovation.

The underestimation part of the law is a bit more troubling.  Of course the inventor of a new technology will probably not be able to correctly assess the full societal impact of their innovation, as one cannot predict the future.  However, inventors may realize they're one to something big, and just lack the information to fill in the details. Cause and effect may also be confused.  Do technological innovations have societal effects or do changes in society make the spread of certain technological innovations possible?

Counterexamples of the Law are available. Nuclear fusion has been endlessly presented as the future for our energy problems, but it's still 20 years away from adoption (as it was 20 years ago and probably will be in 20 years). The overestimation may stem from exaggerated claims in order to attract funds or from scientific ignorance with the public and politicians (probably a combination from both).  However, in the long term, it may still live up to its high expectations.

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1 comment:

  1. Nice counter example. I was struggling to think of any counters ... but your post made me think of GM technologies. Thought to be the answer to food shortages by some, possible increased yields but not yet come to fruition, and possibly never will given the counter arguments of tying farmers to conglomerates with fees for seed/specific pesticides, not to mention the whole effect on wildlife argument.


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