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Friday, December 19, 2003

The Life Cycle of Technology

I was reading the excerpt from "The Age of Spirtual Machines" by Ray Kurzweil. I find topic highly educative:

Technologies fight for survival, evolve, and undergo their own characteristic life cycle. We can identify seven distinct stages. During the precursor stage, the prerequisites of a technology exist, and dreamers may contemplate these elements coming together. We do not, however, regard dreaming to be the same as inventing, even if the dreams are written down. Leonardo da Vinci drew convincing pictures of airplanes and automobiles, but he is not considered to have invented either.

The next stage, one highly celebrated in our culture, is invention, a very brief stage, not dissimilar in some respects to the process of birth after an extended period of labor. Here the inventor blends curiosity, scientific skills, determination, and usually a measure of showmanship to combine methods in a new way to bring a new technology to life.

The next stage is development, during which the invention is protected and supported by doting guardians (which may include the original inventor). Often this stage is more crucial than invention and may involve additional creation that can have greater significance than the original invention. Many tinkerers had constructed finely hand-tuned horseless carriages, but it was Henry Ford's innovation of mass production that enabled the automobile to take root and flourish.

The fourth stage is maturity. Although continuing to evolve, the technology now has a life of its own and has become an independent and established part of the community. It may become so interwoven in the fabric of life that it appears to many observers that it will last forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives, which I call the stage of the pretenders. Here an upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. Its enthusiasts prematurely predict victory. While providing some distinct benefits, the newer technology is found on reflection to be missing some key element of functionality or quality. When it indeed fails to dislodge the established order, the technology conservatives take this as evidence that the original approach will indeed live forever.

This is usually a short-lived victory for the aging technology. Shortly thereafter, another new technology typically does succeed in rendering the original technology into the stage of obsolescence. In this part of the life cycle, the technology lives out its senior years in gradual decline, its original purpose and functionality now subsumed by a more spry competitor. This stage, which may comprise 5 to 10 percent of the life cycle, finally yields to antiquity (examples today: the horse and buggy, the harpsichord, the manual typewriter, and the electromechanical calculator).

To illustrate this, consider the phonograph record. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were several precursors, including Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograph, a device that recorded sound vibrations as a printed pattern. It was Thomas Edison, however, who in 1877 brought all of the elements together and invented the first device that could record and reproduce sound. Further refinements were necessary for the phonograph to become commercially viable. It became a fully mature technology in 1948 when Columbia introduced the 33 revolutions-per-minute (rpm) long-playing record (LP) and RCA Victor introduced the 45-rpm small disc. The pretender was the cassette tape, introduced in the 1960s and popularized during the 1970s. Early enthusiasts predicted that its small size and ability to be rerecorded would make the relatively bulky and scratchable record obsolete.

Despite these obvious benefits, cassettes lack random access (the ability to play selections in a desired order) and are prone to their own forms of distortion and lack of fidelity. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the digital compact disc (CD) did deliver the mortal blow. With the CD providing both random access and a level of quality close to the limits of the human auditory system, the phonograph record entered the stage of obsolescence in the first half of the 1990s. Although still produced in small quantities, the technology that Edison gave birth to more than a century ago is now approaching antiquity.

Another example is the print book, a rather mature technology today. It is now in the stage of the pretenders, with the software-based "virtual" book as the pretender. Lacking the resolution, contrast, lack of flicker, and other visual qualities of paper and ink, the current generation of virtual book does not have the capability of displacing paper-based publications. Yet this victory of the paper-based book will be short-lived as future generations of computer displays succeed in providing a fully satisfactory alternative to paper.

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