There are minor but growing elements of evidence that the rate of technological change has moderated in this decade. Whether this is a temporary trough that merely precedes a return to the trendline, or whether the trendline itself was greatly overestimated, will not be decisively known for some years. In this article, I will attempt to examine some datapoints to determine whether we are at, or behind, where we would expect to be in 2008.
There is overwhelming evidence that many seemingly unrelated technologies are progressing at an accelerating rate. However, the exact magnitude to the accelerating gradient - the second derivative - is difficult to measure with precision. Furthermore, there are periods where advancement can be significantly above or below any such trendline.
This brings us to the chart below from Ray Kurzweil (from Wikipedia) :
This chart appears prominently in many of Kurzweil's writings, and brilliantly conveys the concept of how each major consumer technology reached the mainstream (as defined by a 25% US household penetration rate) in successively shorter times. The horizontal axis represents the year in which the technology was invented.
This chart was produced some years ago, and therein lies the problem. If we were to update the chart to the present day, which technology would be the next addition after 'The Web'?
Many technologies can claim to be the ones to occupy the next position on the chart. IPods and other portable mp3 players, various Web 2.0 applications like social networking, and flat-panel TVs all reached the 25% level of mainstream adoption in under 6 years in accordance with an extrapolation of the chart through 2008. However, it is debatable that any of these are 'revolutionary' technologies like the ones on the chart, rather than merely increments above incumbent predecessors. The iPod merely improved upon the capacity and flexibility of the walkman, the plasma TV merely consumed less space than the tube TV, etc. The technologies on the chart are all infrastructures of some sort, and it is clear that after 'The Web', we are challenged to find a suitable candidate for the next entry.
Thus, we either are on the brink of some overdue technology emerging to reach 25% penetration of US households in 6 years or less, or the rapid diffusion of the Internet truly was a historical anomaly, and for the period from 2001 to 2008 we were merely correcting back to a trendline of much slower diffusion (where it take 10-15 years for a technology to each 25% penetration in the US). One of the two has to be true, at least for an affluent society like the US.
This brings us to the third and final dimension of possibility. This being the decade of globalization, with globalization itself being an expected natural progression of technological change, perhaps a US-centric chart itself was inappropriate to begin with. Landline telephones and television sets still do not have 25% penetration in countries like India, but mobile phones jumped from zero to 10% penetration in under 7 years. The oft-cited 'leapfrogging' of technologies that developing nations can benefit from is a crucial piece of technological diffusion, which would thus show a much smaller interval between 'telephones' and 'mobile phones' than in the US-based chart above. Perhaps '10% Worldwide Household Penetration' is a more suitable measure than '25% US Household Penetration', which would then possibly show that there is no lull in worldwide technological adoption at all.
I may try to put together this new worldwide chart. The horizontal axis would not change, but the placement of datapoints along the vertical axis would. Perhaps Kurzweil merely has to break out of US-centricity in order to strengthen his case and rebut most of his critics.
The future will disclose the results to us soon enough.