29 March 2017

Unimpressive Technologies

Sometimes, technology is amazing. Other times it is, well, less impressive.

What are the least transformative and quality of life improving technological advances we enjoy today:

* We abolished the phone book without replacing it with a reliable way to look up people's phone numbers.

* Some of the most profitable technology companies in the nation are non-union taxi services.

* We replaced wristwatches with a battery life of several years with pocket watches that have to be recharged daily.

* Duct tape now comes in designer colors.

* The mall now has poles controlling whether you can get in or out of the parking lot that change colors when they are going to let you out, unlike the mono-color version that's been around since my grandparents were driving.

* Instead of having time cards stamped at a shared time card machine, working class Americans now have their own personal time card stamping machines (phones).

* We've figured out how to make it take longer to process a credit card transaction than it used to take.

* Select movie theaters now feature high technology features like recliner chairs, assigned seating, and alcohol services, none of which would have been possible for public performances before the Bronze Age.

* We have invented backyard play house for grown ups with little money.

* We have managed to dramatically increase the amount of time it takes to get from the ticket counter to the plane in a typical airport.

* We have managed to replace free meals on airplanes with pay a la carte meals on airplanes, which we now eat in smaller seats, on flights where we have to pay extra for both carry-on baggage and checked baggage.

* We have replaced supersonic jet service across the Atlantic Ocean with subsonic jet service across the ocean.

* We abandoned the programs that allowed us to travel to the Moon and operate a reusable space shuttle.

* We have dramatically increased the inflation adjusted price of a morning coffee.

* We have reduced the amount of service you receive from employees at gas stations, in the express line at the grocery store, and at the bank.

* We have replaced dishwashers that wash your dishes in half an hour with dishwashers that wash your dishes in three hours.

* We can again use 1940s passenger rail technology to make the 66 mile (by highway) trip from Denver's Union Station to the Winter Park Ski resort (which uses about $4 of gas), over 62 miles of rail at an average speed of 31 miles per hour (in about 120 minutes by train v. 82 minutes per hour by car) at a cost of $37.50 each way.

* We have replaced five to seven times a day mail delivery service with six times a week mail delivery service.

* We have made car maintenance which were possible to do and which many people did do in their garages at home impossible to accomplish without expensive equipment.

* We may not have solved all of the world's problems, but we now have free, universal hard-core pornography for anyone who has Internet access that can be viewed in a private place.


Anonymous said...

You could be accused of cherry-picking your examples, but I take your point that the trajectory of technology is not a smoothly ascending curved. Diminished return set in especially when competing objectives exist, such as economics vs. utility. More often, it's trade-offs in safety/security -- a poor proxy for value as it turns out -- that has led to retreat in the quality of many goods and services that used to be considered standard. Case in point: the experience in the dining car of a 19th-century locomotive puts to shame the comparative experience on a 21st-century jetliner.

andrew said...

I absolutely acknowledge cherry-picking my examples. I don't deny that there are impressive technologies out there, but it is certainly also true that the path of progress is not inevitable or unbroken.

I'm not sure that the comparison of 19th century train travel to a 21st-century jetliner is fair. The comfort and amenities of modern passenger trains in the developed world can be pretty decent. But, it is fair to note that the jetliners of 2017 are not nearly so comfortable as the jetliners of 1967. On the other hand, in real dollars, a trip on a 2017 jetliner is considerably cheaper.

I do not believe that trade-offs in safety/security in terms of defective or dangerous products have played a major part in the retreat in the quality of many goods and services. If anything, those concerns have been a net plus. But, I do agree that exaggerated fears about terrorism and hijackings have led to unreasonable tradeoffs that have reduced quality.