The Faucet Revolution
©1998 Zhan Huan Zhou
Take a look through your home and make a list of every technological advance that is essential to North American lifestyle in the twentieth century. Do not forget to include items such as running water, the flush toilet and electric lighting. Now imagine your home five years down the road. Examine your list and mark down that you think might need replacing due to becoming obsolete, not due to physical stresses. Fast forward another five years and examine your list again.
Here is a sample of what your list may have looked like. The (*) denotes that the item needs to replaced due to becoming obsolete.
Today: car, computer, running water, light bulb
Five years: car, computer, running water, light bulb
Ten years: car, computer, running water, light bulb
Remember, this is a list of obsolete technologies, not a list of things that may have broken down in the five or ten years. Before you ask yourself why "computer" is not marked, consider why the other three items on the list are not marked.
The transition from horse and buggy and to a car was a major technological advance because the fundamental principles for transportation was dramatically changed. It was a shift from animal power to chemical and mechanical power in which the new technology made the old technology obsolete. A newer, faster car does not render an older, slower car obsolete. Other forms of transportation such as personal flight devices and teleportation would render cars obsolete, however, it is unlikely we will see such devices within the next ten years.
The light bulb has brought on the 24-hour day. A portable sun could light up a room with the flick of a switch. This literally doubled the work year. The effects on society were profound with the introduction of the night shift and night life. Power saving lights are great idea, but they do not make older bulbs obsolete. It appears unlikely that a new form of lighting will be developed in ten years that will cause the light bulb to become obsolete.
Clean running water is perhaps one of the most important advancements in the twentieth century. Increased sanitary conditions combined with modern medicine has allowed the population of the civilized world to explode this century. This fact alone is enough to constitute that running water has dramatically affected twentieth century society. However, when was the last time you heard of "the faucet revolution?"
Each of the five generations of computers is characterized by a fundamental change in the underlying technology. Computers started as mechanical devices, and progressed to vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits and now, VLSI (very large scale integration) devices in present day computers. However, the fundamental workings of a Pentium are the same as an XT, both operating with solid-state silicon-based transistors. A computer that cannot run the latest incarnations of Windows, 3D games or Netscape does not constitute obsolescence. A computer is obsolete when a new computer is developed employing a different fundamental technology.
When was the last time something truly revolutionary was applied to cars, light bulbs and faucets? Not in a very long time! When was the last time something truly revolutionary was applied to computers? Not in a very long time! Quite simply, none of the basic technologies in North American society has become truly obsolete in decades.
So what makes the computer industry so different from the other three? Economics. Economics is the driving force in changing the relationship between technology and society, not technology as it should be. The giants of personal computing are forcing you to upgrade to the newest version of their software, but in order to run the new software, you need new hardware. If you find out about a stereo that has a couple of new bells and whistles, would you run out and buy it? Absolutely not! What makes this any different for personal computers, both software and hardware? Nothing. It is just marketing that is giving the image of new technologies when in fact it is simply a new product.
Science and technology have always required a long time to change and always will. Social inertia resists technological change and limits the rate of change at a level that it can handle. Therefore, there is no impact of accelerating obsolescence on the quality of life for members of society since technology is not becoming obsolete at an increasingly rapid rate.
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