Friday, 5 December 2014

Emergent Technology and Economic Transformations

BBC Radio 4's Start the week with William Gibson and Judy Wajcman (and others, but I mention them because it is their comments I respond to below) on science fiction on 24th November touched on issues that I've read about in Economic Transformations by Lipsey, Carlaw and Bekar.

The Gibson quote that hit me was "emergent technology is the big change driver in society and long has been", which then led into a comment that technology emerges rather than being legislated into existence and that we're not unique in living in a time of technological change. This idea that technology has produced unpredictable but sustained economic change over a long period is core to the economics book. They also discuss that these changes are not directly tied to individual products but to more fundamental technologies. Not every new product can have this large-scale, sustained transforming approach, most are part of a larger technology. Many significant social changes are prompted by combinations of technology, rather than individual new technologies. These might build on each other, e.g. electricity then telegraph; or in combination, e.g. DNA and computers. Another issue they discuss at length is that the emergence of the technology, its widespread application, and the social / economic benefit are often separated by a significant lag. This isn't just buying new gadgets beyond early adopters, but the application of technology in ways that create efficiencies at a social level which then enables large scale changes in patterns of living and production - such as the connection between steam power, factory production and movement from cottage industry to city living. It is the social effects which make the technology a significant driver of the economy, and the technology needs experimentation and a foundation of science to reach the stage of having widespread, substantial and sustained effects as the basis for products but transcending an individual product.

On the radio they touched on many other issues. I'm not going to comment on everything, but busyness was another: the need to be constantly doing something (or at least be seen to be busy), to be up to the minute. Despite a pair of jobs, a hobby project, a blog and a couple of Twitter accounts (and a non-tech life) I'm going to claim bucking the trend here! I've been meaning to write about that book for a while, but haven't found the seed for something to write until now. Because I don't engage on a real time basis, but via a podcast, it has taken me until yesterday to listen to the programme. Because I try to percolate what I blog, let the ideas filter and brew, there's another day to posting here. Good ideas don't have to be had now. Despite first mover advantage, or the need of others to build on your idea, the quality of the idea matters too. Reflecting the previous point, big ideas that really impact what you do take time. In my technical work I've found that some of the most fundamental changes to how I work are based in principles and connections between ideas that have matured over time. The maturation happens both in the wider world, but also in my mind - satisfying a need via an approach rather than a specific thing.

Of course inspiration finds you when you're working, but you don't need to make a show of working for inspiration to find you - because the show is rarely the work. The gaps between work are really important if you work in ideas, they give the brain breathing space ... listen to a podcast, read a book!

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