Thursday, October 21, 2010

Technology Predictions

There's an article in the fall issue of the Phi Beta Kappa newsletter called "The Manifold Problems of Technology Forecasting," by Andrew Odlyzko. Two important points the author makes: That "what people do with technology differs widely from what inventors had in mind" and that instead of replacing old technologies, new ones "frequently serve to strengthen their predecessors." One example he cites is the relationship between railroads and horses. Contrary to expectation, the railroad didn't make the horse obsolete, because the need for transportation to the railheads created a bigger market for horse-drawn transportation. Referring to more recent developments, he refutes the prediction that faster communication would result in less need for transportation, for instance, that the Internet would enable telecommunication to replace physical presence and thus get traffic off the roads. So far, it hasn't happened. He argues against the belief that transportation and communication are "substitutes for each other." Instead, they're complementary.

The example that first comes to mind for me is television. Television didn't kill radio. Nor did it kill movies, as might have been expected. The movie industry found ways to use TV to its advantage. Similarly, I don't have any fear that new media will destroy the book, nor that e-books will make paper books obsolete any time soon.

As for the effect of new media on reading in general, Isaac Asimov pointed out decades ago that the percentage of the population who are dedicated readers (as opposed to reading when there's absolutely nothing else to do, or not reading at all except when forced to, for information) has always been a tiny minority. What changes from one era to the next is what kind of entertainment they choose instead of books. We might even argue that the rise of the Internet means more people are reading more than ever before, even if not the kind of sustained, long-format reading a novel invites.

As for new technology's being used differently from how the inventors had in mind, the Internet, of course, was first developed for military applications. And I wonder whether anyone who saw the first automobiles take to the road around 1900 would have predicted suburban "sprawl," the impact of oil on the global economy, or the car's profound effect on American courtship patterns?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Anonymous9:41 AM EDT

    I've never looked at technology as complementary to existing formats, but it's certainly an excellent and accurate way of viewing it.

    I have not been one of those running in fear of eBook platforms. Rather I think it allows far more people an avenue to an author's work. New tech will always be embraced over old, simply because new tech is created to give the user a better experience and also because people are curious. Who wouldn't want to try the shiny new thing?

    As writers, we need to relax and embrace eBooks, Vooks, Book Trailers and whatever else comes our way because it allows us more ways to reach our audience. And at the end of the day, it's about the audience experience. That's why we want to sell our books in the first place.

  2. Oh, I completely agree with you about e-books. They constitute most of my published works. :)

    But I do think for a long time to come they will coexist alongside paper books. Each has its niche.

  3. Did you get my e mail?

  4. Ana: Not that I remember? On what subject?