New inventions is not always a sign of progress,
New technology is not always a sign of progress,
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Is the computer the least efficient machine humans have ever built? Technology journalists often unthinkingly pick up a narrative of progress in which each generation of technology is an improvement on the last, from abacus to iPhone. We marvel that we carry more computing power in our pockets than was used to put a man on the moon in 1969.
Mr Hughes unpicks some of this thinking. From a historical perspective, technological progress has not always resulted in the betterment of humanity. Take the spread of watermills for grinding corn, which began around 1000AD in Europe. Watermills have always been presented as an example of enlightened development, enabling people to grind much larger quantities of grain at once.
Yet milling by hand preserves more nutrients in the grain than mechanised milling, and a move to watermills generally owned by feudal lords was imposed by force on a reluctant peasant population. Around this time the average height of European peasants began to decrease, indicating a worsening diet.
In the computer age, we are similarly spun into cycles of obsolescence and upgrades that benefit us little but which are difficult to opt out of. Anyone still mourning the loss of their BlackBerry to an iPhone may feel a stab of sympathy when they read Mr Hughes.
The economics of microchip production where factories must operate at enormous scale and only the very latest products make a profit dictates a relentless pace of device upgrades, regardless of what consumers really need.
Understanding this helps to explain the mysterious “productivity paradox” the fact that all the new computer and mobile technology of the past 20 years has not led to an increase in productivity. Employees must constantly learn new ways to perform the same task over and over again as technology changes. However, this does not necessarily increase the speed at which jobs are done.
Moreover, modern computers and mobile phones for all their functionality are hampered by a design flaw that dates back to the 1940s: a clock that dictates that only one tiny process can happen at a time. Clocks have sped up since British codebreakers at Bletchley Park built the Colossus machine during the second world war, but the principle remains the same: only a small amount of frenetic activity happens at a time, while most of the device remains idle.
There are other routes that we could have taken with technology. Until the 1960s around half the world’s computers were still analogue: in fact, it was analogue computers that enabled that first moon landing.
Analogue computers had many advantages. They could be more intuitive to use and even in the 1980s were significantly faster and cheaper than their digital rivals. They could be made from a variety of materials. The Monetary National Income Analogue Computer (Moniac), which was built in 1949, used water to model aspects of the UK economy. Another system, which was built by the University of the West of England’s International Centre of Unconventional Computing, was based on slime mould.