The Path of Least Resistance

The equipment I described in yesterday’s post is a case of contrast. About half the equipment, installed in 1983, is practically identical to what we’d buy today. The rest, installed in 1987, is woefully obsolete to the point it was like looking at an antique.

Why there has been rapid technological change with half the equipment and not the other, well, there hangs the tale. That’s because half the equipment is essentially coils of wire, and unless there’s a breakthrough in physics or engineering, that technology has advanced as far as it reasonably can. The other half involved electronics, and that has seen radical advances in the last thirty years. That’s due to breakthroughs in manufacturing which has led to lower costs for electronic devices, and, in turn, innovation in application. Simply put, over the last thirty years there has been a greater return on investment in electronics than the other equipment used at the site. Technology has followed the path of least resistance. In other words, profit.

That’s some thing we don’t often consider when thinking about the future. Another blog brought up how we thought we’d have flying cars and lunar colonies by now. Growing up I certainly thought we would. But while there’s been periodic attempts to introduce flying cars, they were all expensive to buy; expensive to maintain; and complex to fly. Any airplane is expensive to buy; expensive to maintain; and complex to fly. That puts it outside the range of most households, which means there isn’t a demand for flying cars in the intended market. End result: we don’t have flying cars.

In the same way, we don’t have moon colonies because so far we haven’t had an incentive great enough to justify the enormous expense. Even putting a robot on the moon takes more money than some countries have. Let something that would permit, say, immortality or faster than light travel be discovered only on the moon, and we’d have our lunar colonies in no time. But it’s going to take something on that level, or a dramatic drop in the cost of getting and staying there, before we see colonies on the moon. Although there’s a tendency in fiction, including science fiction, to view profit as tainted, the fact remains that profit drives innovation. No profit; little innovation.

This, combined with the technological S curve, tends to shape what’s developed with what’s not. The technological S curve shows up in a lot of things besides innovation, but basically it holds that there is rapid innovation following a scientific and/or engineering breakthrough, followed by a flattening as the technology is taken as far as it can go. There comes a point of diminishing innovation in a line of technology as it hits physical and monetary limits. At that point, if there exists a different technology that can do the task cheaper and better, there is a shift and continued innovation. Computers shifted from mechanical devices to electromechanical to vacuum tubes to transistors to printed silicon layers. Converting high voltage and current to low depends on coils of wire. At the moment there is no other technology that does this in a cost effective manner. So it was that half of the equipment changed and the other half didn’t.

Even knowing this, applying it to our visions of the future is difficult, which is why all hard science fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the current visions of high tech found at book sellers, are based on extrapolations of existing technology. Sometimes you’ll find it eerily accurate, but other times there are odd bits that stand out, such as starship crews using slide rules. Of course, the purpose of science fiction is to tell a rip roaring good tale, not to foretell the future. But it does raise the question that if our stories have moon bases and flying cars, what changed? Tech follows the path of least resistance, so if there are moon bases and flying cars, something has to happen to make them economically feasible. A new scientific discovery that leads to new technology? The application of technology that’s been staring us in the face all along? The discovery of something that justifies the expense? It can be anything we want, as long as it doesn’t cause the reader to slam it against the wall. But some change must happen, and it’s probably going to show up all across our fictional society.

For instance, the electronic breakthroughs that led to computers. That’s made so many changes to society that we might not be aware of them all. But imagine a science fiction writer in the late 1940s who’s aware that semiconductors could replace vacuum tubes (the patents date to the 1920s and 1930s), but the material just isn’t pure enough. Then he learns that Bell Labs has produced a working semiconductor replacement for a triode, called a transistor. He sees where transistors can replace triodes, with the result of smaller and more energy efficient computers, but would he see smart phones? Would he see photo manipulation? Would he see LOL cats and Facebook? Would he see a hack writing a blog post in hope someone will buy his books? Wait . . .

Anyway, you get the point. In any science fiction or fantasy world, an innovation that allows the MacGuffin to exist is going to have effects all across the fictional culture. Just what that might be depends on the writer’s imagination, but realistically it will follow the path of least resistance. If you have a compact power source that allows ray guns, that’s probably going to be used for more than weapons. What other technologies would shift with the development of a cheap power supply that’s provides that much energy? If none, why?

Technology follows the path of least resistance. Whatever our fictional worlds may be, if we look at the greatest potential of profit, we might wind up with something interesting and believable. Some may turn up their noses at the idea of technology following the money, but that’s how things work. And if it doesn’t, there has to be a believable reason for that, too.

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