The Path of Technological Development – A quick overview of recent history

Lets start with some overview of the love affair that the human race seems to have with technology.

In the 30 or so years I have been working in the profession, computers have moved from being the province of nerds to now being a fashion item. And, yes, I was a spotty faced geek with glasses spending all hours in front of a keyboard playing some of the early computer games like Dungeons and Dragons – “Get in bucket. Drop bottle. Pick up matches” – usually eliciting the response from the game – “You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike”. Those games did not need much computing power. Now if you have a Smartphone, it has more power than many desktop PCs of the 90s.

But the question that has puzzled me is why there has been an inordinate amount of time, money but above all, human energy invested in developing computer software. Where I work, for example, there have been over 2 person centuries of effort expended in writing the software, which now stands at over 16 million lines of software, if not more. This is not out of the ordinary in industry.

Information technology is just the latest result of a continuum of technological development stretching from thousands of years ago. However it has a special attribute which I will come to later.

As with the movie character Shrek, even though he didn’t like being compared to an onion, there are a number of levels here:

The Development of Craftsmanship
Humans are consummate toolmakers and the computer is the latest in a long line of inventions that have given us more power to predict and control our environment. However, every tool has two sides, just like the proverbial two-edged sword. On the plus side a good tool amplifies our capacities. The down side that is usually forgotten is that any tool will place obstacles in our path which we must overcome by training ourselves to use it properly. Eventually, with effort, we develop more skill and a good tool becomes transparent to us as we use it. This has resulted in the development of craftsmanship and the professions.

The Development of Automation
If we look at the beginning of the 20th century, Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to help speed the construction of the Model T car. This was a major change in the way work was carried out and was met by strong opposition. He doubled the pay of his employees, segregated the work, yet stayed profitable because he was able to triple the running speed of the assembly line (see Shop Class as Soulcraft reference). This was the beginning of a massive development towards more automation in the workplace. Automation is about defining sets of rules to follow, and this can be done with some non-physical work, culminating in the current so called Expert Systems. For example I would expect the legal profession to see quite a few changes in this area in the years ahead.

The Development of Software
And so we come to software development. Why do I consider it to have a separate place from the automation of other work? With software programming the rules of work are almost impossible to pin down. Software is always written in an unambiguous machine-friendly language, and requires a lot of human effort create, since we have to use the ambiguous human languages to define what we want done. Now to automate software development, which uses a language, you have to… you guessed it… use another language. This means that to improve software development you have to do even more software development! With computing this has been the story so far with many new languages appearing every year, and it does not look like slowing down.

And so…
In terms of tool use and development, we have reached the top of a pyramid, moving up from physical work to thought work. We can automate repetitive physical work by using our thinking. But to automate repetitive thinking, we can only do more thinking, but at a higher-level. Of course we need to recognise that we are talking about the more utilitarian mode of thought here, but of course, as you might expect, the view of the path starts to get murky.

More to follow…

“Shop Class as Soulcraft – An Inquiry into the Value of Work” by Matthew B Crawford, Penguin.

4 thoughts on “The Path of Technological Development – A quick overview of recent history

  1. The vast majority of the computer-based tools I’ve learned over the last 50 years are obsolete. A well-made hammer, wrench, axe, … can last for generations. So the value of learning a computer-based tool exists only for the short term – it becomes stale rather quickly.

    • Hi Sigurd,
      Hmmm. I would agree only up to a point here.

      To me there is always a sub-text, which will never become obsolete, with the use of computer based tools. It is almost as if the human race, through its love affair with technology, is learning about certain systemic structures.

      If you go back to the original work von Neumann did on computer architecture, his team predicted that such computers will spend more time moving data around than actually processing it. This is a truism that has not changed since the 1940s. Another instance of something that has not changed throughout my 35 year career is the need, for example, to balance pipelines in multi-threaded or parallel systems. My experience is that many such insights, though still relevant, may get temporarily forgotten. I look on with bemused interest at the discussion around the latest C++ language changes, as multi-threading issues have come to the fore. I usually end up regaling my colleagues with stories from ‘the old days’, especially about array processors and some of the computer chips available at the time.

      Basically there is a core of expertise and insight which I can see as never losing its relevance.

      Thanks again for your interest.

      (EDIT: Corrected Sigurd’s name – mis-typed it in original comment)

      • the name’s Sigurd – name comes from a character that appears in a variety of stories in various traditions, including Scandinavian and Germanic.
        In the former, Sigurd slew the dragon Fafnir, and gained powers from the dragon’s blood. Quite a name to be given. Same as my father’s – I’m Jr. He was born in Denmark.

      • Sorry about mis-typing the name. Will correct it if wordpress allows me to do so. ‘Twas a mistook!
        Given our career, I think your name is very appropriate if you are happy to equate technology with the dragon. I know I do.

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