Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Evolution or Revolution

Mache Creeger asks Evolution or Revolution = Where is the High in High-Tech?
"We work in an industry that prides itself on 'changing the world', one that chants a constant mantra of innovation and where new products could aptly be described as 'this year’s breakthrough of the century'. While there are some genuine revolutions in the technology industry, including cellphones, GPS (global positioning system), quantum computing, encryption, and global access to content, the vast majority of new product introductions are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Real technical breakthroughs are few and far between. Most new products are just a recycling of an earlier idea."
This represents a challenge to the popular belief in the accelerating rate of technical change. I have blogged about this before: Death of Software, Innovation or Refinement.

Bob Wyman complains about Creeger's distinction between evolution and revolution, and insists that Evolution = Revolution. There are undoubtedly some complications in evolutionary theory that Creeger doesn't mention. (Wyman references over a dozen articles in Wikipedia.) But I don't think this alters Creeger's basic argument about the pace of technological change. Wyman suggests that the current situation may be interpreted as part of an evolutionary cycle, and hopes (even predicts) that there is more innovation just around the corner.
"Today's thinkers are no less smart and no less innovative than were the folk working 'back in the day'. The difference is that today we're all still focused on working through the implications of the last revolution. In time we'll exhaust the realm of easily achieved secondary innovations and we'll then be ready to move on to more revolutionary 'Cambrian' times again. It is always like this. It always has been and it always will be."
He appeals vaguely to various intellectual authorities (including Stephen Jay Gould and the entire Santa Fe Institute) in support of this wishful thinking, before falling back on some popular but lightweight business literature (Clayton Christensen: The Innovator's Dilemma, The Innovator's Solution).

Ultimately, the comparison between biological evolution and technological evolution may be useful as an explanatory device, or as a source of interesting hypotheses, but not as a reliable source of predictions about the future.

How can we measure the true pace of technological change? Some people use patent activity as a metric, but this metric is made almost meaningless by the vast number of trivial patents, as both Creeger and Wyman agree. How can we decide which are the major innovations? Creeger mentions a few, but Wyman has his doubts even about these.

The success of evolutionary theory is based in part on painstaking observation and classification by generations of biologists. We simply don't have an equivalent body of knowledge about technological innovation. What we have is large amounts of hype and hot air, and a relatively small number of detailed scientific studies of particular innovations.

Even in the absence of detailed empirical data, however, it is always useful to step back from the current obsession with technical wizardry, and try to get a bigger picture of technological change. In this spirit, I welcome both Creeger's polemic and Wyman's reinterpretation, while remaining cautious about the inevitable subjectivity of both.

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