In the essay “The steam engine and the computer” Simon makes a number of important, and interesting points about technological revolution. It is an interesting analysis and worthwhile reading – it is quite short – but I will summarize a few points, and throw out a concept idea.
Simon notes that revolutions – their name notwithstanding – take a lot of time. The revolution based on the steam engine arguably took more than 150 years to really change society. Our own information revolution is not even half way there. We have sort of assumed that the information revolution is over and innovation and productivity pessimism have become rampant in our public debate. Simon’s view would probably be that this is far too early to say – and he might add that the more impactful change comes in the second half of a revolution (an old truth that John McCarthy reminded me of when I interviewed him back in 2006, when AI celebrated 50 years. We still hovered at the edge of the AI-winter then, and I remember asking him if he was not disappointed? He looked at me as if I was a complete idiot and said “Look, 50 years after Mendel discover the idea of inheritance genetics had gotten nowhere. Now we have sequenced the genome. Change comes in the second half of hundred years for human discoveries.” I must say that looking at the field now, the curmudgeonly comment was especially accurate. Makes me also think that maybe there is a general rule here connected to biological time scales? Human discoveries may have a similar arc of development across complex issues? Hm…). In 1997 1.7% of the Earth had Internet access. In 2007 that number was 20% and today it is 49 percent. We are halfway there.
Simon’s other observation is that no revolution depends on a single technology, but on a slowly unfolding weave of technologies. This is in one way trivial, but in another way quiet a helpful way to think about innovation. Most innovation pessimists tend to look at individual innovations and judge them trivial or uninteresting – but as they are connected in a weave of technology you can start to see other patterns. One pattern that Simon identifies for the first industrial revolution is this:
(i) steam engine — dynamo — electricity
And even though he does not predict it, he sees networking as something similar. From our vantage point we can see it quite clearly as a pattern too:
(ii) computer — internet — connectivity
But there are also new, intriguing patterns that we can start thinking about and exploring. Here is one that I think would merit some thinking:
(iii) computer — machine learning — cognicity.
The idea of cognicity – general purpose cognition available as openly as electricity – is one that could possibly rival that of electricity, and when added to connectivity the mix seems very interesting to analyze.
Simon also has an interesting point about education in the essay. He ridicules the fact that we have no clear idea of what education is, and says that we seem to be operating on the infection theory of education: gathering people in a classroom and spraying words at them, hoping that some of the words will infect the hosts. He also makes the point that computers seem to help us scale this theory, but that it is far from clear that this is indeed the best way of educating someone. It is hard not to read into this an implicit, possible criticism of MOOCs and their assumptions. Simon suggests that it is through immersive play that we learn, and he regrets asking organizations to first figure out what they would use computers for before they invest in them – it is in the individual experimentation these devices really come to their forte. This is also intriguing – Simon notes that computers are in a sense self-instructive, and while it is easy to protest that we need digital skills courses, it is intriguing to consider how billions of people learnt to use smartphones. Was it primarily through immersive play – experimenting with them – or through infection theory education?
Finally Simon makes a crucial point. Technological revolutions do not happen to us. We shape them. There is, in that observation, a world of difference between Simon and many who discuss technology, society and politics today.