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Technological acceleration


Scientific and technological innovation directly lead to a speeding up of all processes. If a new method or technology can get the same result with less effort, someone is bound to introduce it. If you aren't inclined to switch over to the new technique, your competitor will, and you will have to follow suit. Otherwise, your competitor will gain an edge, producing more than you for the same investment. This competitive drive leads to a frantic chase for more efficient methods, for "optimization" or "rationalization" of existing systems. It pushes researchers to develop ever more powerful technologies. The visionary designer Buckminster Fuller coined the word "ephemeralization" for this drive to progressively do more with less. Gradually smaller amounts of materials and effort will accomplish more and more useful functions.

Diminishing effort means in the first place diminishing the time needed to get the desired result. Why spend days on a task that can be performed in hours? You can use the time gained to produce more of the same, to tackle different problems, or simply to relax. Technological innovation leads directly to a speeding up of existing processes. With improved technology, houses will be built, motorcars will be assembled, food will be produced, and diseases will be cured in less time than it used to take.


This increased speed is most clear in travel and transportation. In pre-industrial societies, people moved by walking, on horseback, in horse-drawn carriages, or by ships driven by wind or rowing. The typical speed was a few miles per hour. This changed radically with the introduction of the steam engine, first in ships, then in locomotives and primitive automobiles. These first motorized vehicles reached tens of miles per hour. The next major jump was the invention of aircraft, moving at hundreds of miles per hour. Finally, space ships travel at thousands of miles per hour. Once they have left the Earth's atmosphere, their further acceleration is limited only by the speed of light, the absolute limit according to physics. In a mere 200 years, maximum speed of movement has increased by several orders of magnitude.

Velocity has continued to augment within each major category too. Ships, trains, cars and planes move much more quickly now than they did 50 years ago. Although there are practical limits on the maximum speed of each type of vehicle, the average speed of transport continues to increase, thanks to better roads and traffic infrastructure, and more efficient methods of navigation, loading and unloading. The net effect is that people and goods need a much shorter time to reach any far-away destination. In the 16th century, Magellan's ship needed two years to sail around the globe. In the 19th century, Jules Verne gave a detailed account of how to travel around the world in 80 days. In 1945, a plane could do this trip in two weeks. Present-day supersonic planes need less than a day. Satellites circle the planet in one hour.

More important than speed records is bulk transport: the amount of goods moved per unit of time. In Magellan's time, only precious, small volume goods, such as spices, china, and jewellery, were transported over large distances. The duration and risks of the travel were simply too large. Presently, we find it normal to get most of our oil, coal, ore, and other raw materials from thousands of miles away. Giant container ships, freight trains and highways have made it economical to continuously move billions of tons around the world.

Not only matter, but energy is distributed more and more speedily. Pipelines and tankers carry oil and natural gas from other continents. For shorter distances, the electrical grid system is the most efficient, delivering power to industry and households whenever it is needed. Presently, the national power grids of neighbouring countries are starting to cross-connect, creating an international network. Thus, a factory in Denmark can receive instantaneous energy from a power station in France, or from wherever there is a high capacity available.

Information Transmission

The acceleration is even more striking for the distribution of information. In pre-industrial times, people communicated over long distance by letters, carried by couriers on horseback. We can estimate the average speed of information transmission by counting the number of characters in a message. Technically, one character corresponds to one byte, or 8 bits, of information. If we count an average letter to contain 10,000 characters, and assume that a journey on horseback to a neighbouring country takes one month, we get a transmission rate of 0.03 bit per second. The first major revolution in communication technology was the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century. It could transmit a signal virtually instantaneously. However, it would still take quite a while to transmit an extended series of signs. If we estimate that it takes a little over two seconds to punch in the Morse code for one character, we get a transmission rate of 3 bit per second. The first data connections between computers in the 1960's would run at speeds of 300 bit per second, a dramatic improvement. Present-day modems, through which computers can communicate over telephone lines, reach some 30,000 bits per second. However, the most powerful long distance connections, using fibre optic cables, transmit some 300 million bits per second. In a mere 200 years, the speed of information transmission has increased 10 billion times! And this is just the beginning: experiments with even higher transmission rates are going on.

Scientific Innovation

The acceleration of data transmission is not only much larger but also more significant than the acceleration of transport. That is because it boosts all further scientific and technological progress. Swift transmission of information eliminates the major bottleneck of scientific innovation: the long delay between the moment an idea is written down and the moment it is read by another scientist. With the present electronic networks, a researcher can make a document, including all relevant data, illustrations and references, available on a public computer, announce its availability to hundreds or thousands of scientists working in the same domain, and start getting their reactions within the next few hours.

Better communication media diminish not only the delay between a discovery and its use by other scientists, but the delay between an invention and its acceptance in the marketplace. Studies have shown that the gap between the development of a new product and its diffusion throughout society has been steadily decreasing. The first patent for a typewriter was issued in 1714, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that typewriters were commonly used. For inventions introduced in the beginning of this century, such as vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, it would typically take some thirty to forty years before they would reach peak production. Recently, new technologies such as CD players or video recorders have swept through society in a mere ten years.

Copyright© 1998 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Mar 23, 1998


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