The Greatest Leaps in Technology

My friend Marcia has an interesting article up on the Inside Scoop blog at Intel, entitled Ultrabook: Top 12 Greatest Leaps in Technology, in which she takes a stab at identifying the greatest leaps in technology in the current era. I can’t let that one go without adding my two cents, so… let’s have a look!

First off, she identifies Automated Teller Machines (more commonly known as “ATMs”) as a milestone, and I agree to some extent, but to me it’s a milestone in the rise of robots, of specialized machines that are really good at a single task but useless otherwise. If you want to have easier access to your banking, to your money, if you want to avoid talking to a human and deposit a check or withdraw money at 4am? No worries.
Given the ability to have a cashier charge an additional $20, $40 or more to your existing transaction at a supermarket and then give you the difference in cash, it seems probable to me that in the next decade we’ll see ATM machines from banks phase out and be replaced by the computerized checkout systems that are common in most modern supermarkets. With 24hr access and considerably better security, why not deposit your paycheck and get $100 back for a weekend at Safeway while picking up your groceries?

Next technological leap: Air Travel. This one I agree has definitely changed our planet, though I’ll suggest that the most profound transportation in the history of mankind was actually steam engine-powered trains. The issue to me is access to the transportation, and trains have always been egalitarian in a way that air travel never was. A poor family could never fly coast-to-coast even 40 years ago, but a train ride from Mississippi to Maryland in third class? A chance to change your world.
The limiting factor on all modes of transportation is the infrastructure needed, and while it is tempting to assume that the thousands of miles of rail is more expensive than building airports and an air transportation management system, I think that’s false. If nothing else, airplanes cost a whole heck of a lot more than even a fleet of trains, and passenger trains are actually relatively inexpensive: a bunch of benches in a wooden box with wheels. Add an additional 50 person capacity to a train? No problem. Add it to a modern airplane? That’s a ten million or more upgrade to your fleet, with new support infrastructure.
The third technology leap Marcia identifies is Cell Phones, and I’ll agree with her on that one. You need simply look at third world nations without major legacy telecom infrastructure, nations that are jumping directly into mobile and highly fluid telecom services to realize that the way we communicate — and share data! — has irrevocably changed. Then again, look at teens and 20-somethings to see how their mobile devices have become the lifeblood of their social networks. Without texting, without Facebook status updates, without Instagram, how would their friends and family know what they were doing?

Cellphones also represent a more insidious technology in a way that ATM machines and air travel don’t: cellphones track your time, your location, your activity and your social networks (don’t believe me? Think about the fact that your phone can geolocate you down to a few feet. And can also do so for every other cellphone on the network. Don’t you think it’d be easy to correlate data and figure out who went to that big rave last Saturday night?)
It’s the bane of our information age: information itself is neutral, but we typically only consider it for its positive uses. Heck, I use and like FourSquare, constantly telling my circle of friends where I am throughout the day. But there’s a dark side to these utilities, one that seems far distant in our free society, but it’s worth observing that while cellphones are a profound technological innovation that has changed the very fabric of society, it’s not necessarily for the better. And when I watch my kids text each other instead of trying to meet face to face with their friends, well, projecting that trend forward 20 years isn’t a pretty sight.
In any case, an interesting article that sparked some interesting discussion. I’m looking forward to the next installment, and suggest that it could include precise time measurement, sound recording, photography, penicillin, Enovid (birth control pills) and lithium batteries, among others. 
But that’s my list. What would you identify as one of the dozen most profound technological inventions of human history?

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