Friday, August 12, 2005

You're a tool.

People cheerfully say "knowledge is power!" But people are wrong. Knowledge is acceleration of power. Power itself is tools.

Think about it. Every advantage we have is based on the tools we use. We win wars with tools. We feed millions instead of thousands thanks to tools. We stave of disease with tools. We can live a hundred miles from our workplace thanks to tools. And, in fact, we gather knowledge with tools.

Knowledge is great. It helps us build better tools, in the loosest sense of the word. But the tools are the critical part. Someone in South Africa will not be significantly better off because he has a deep understanding of quantum mechanics. He'll be significantly better off if he has better tools than everyone else.

The tool-knowledge spiral is ancient, and has been slowly accelerating since pre-history began. Every time we make another tool, we reduce the amount of time until the next tool. A simple look at history shows that we have been slowly accelerating when it comes to important, world-shaking technological breakthroughs ("tools").

Let's take a look at communication: a critical set of tools.

<2900 BC: Alphabet, Heiroglyphs, and Cuneiform writing developed.

1270 BC: Syria writes the world's first encyclopedia.

900 BC: China develops a postal service.

776 BC: Homing pigeons used.

530 BC: Libraries invented.

500-170 BC: Portable "paper" invented.

200 BC - 300 CE: Paved roads invented.

100 CE: Bound books invented.

305 CE: China invents printing press.

1050 CE: China invents moveable type.

1450 CE: Printing press and newspapers in the West.

1560: Camera Obscura invented.

1714: Typewriter patented.

1814: Photograph achieved!

1831: Telegraph acheived.

1861: Kinematoscope invented. Pony express widespread.

1876: Mimeograph and telephone patented.

1877: Phonograph and high-speed photography invented.

1887: Gramophone (re-recordable)

1899: Magnetic recordings, loudspeakers, and answering machines.

1902: Radio crosses the atlantic.

1910: Talkies.

1916: Tuneable radios.

1923: Television.

1938: Non-live television, thanks to magnetic recording.

1944: Early computers live!

1951: Computers sold commercially.

1958: Integrated circuit.

1966: Fax machines.

1969: ARPANET.

1971: Floppy disks and microchips.

1976: Apple I home computer.

1979: Cellular phones

1983: "Computer" is Time's Man of the Year.

That's where my timeline research ends, simply because after that it's wading through piles of crap. We've got optic cables, CDs, HTTP, and a million other inventions which make communication much more effective than it was before.

Some of the acceleration can be blamed on the fact that we're simply more familiar with the modern era. After all, if Haggarus made a breakthrough in 800 BC, how would we know?

But we're talking about world-shaking tools. Everything I've mentioned changed the way the world communicated. Aside from the thousand years of stagnation caused by Our Friend Christianity, Bane of Science, Killer of Thought, we see a fairly straight-forward progression which, to me, implies a FORMULA!

Lets look at the year breakdown, ending at 1983, dropping China for clarity:

~1000, ~300, ~125, ~200, ~200, ~200, ~200, (we're at 100 CE)
Then CHRISTIANITY. Assuming Christianity loses its effect when the next invention is made in Europe...
~100, ~150, ~100, ~15, ~30, ~15 (Thomas Edison kicks in here), ~1,
~10, ~10, ~3 (1902), ~8, ~6, ~7, ~15, ~6, ~7, ~7, ~8, ~3 (ARPANET STARTS:)
~3, ~5, ~3, ~4, (modern era)

What we see is a definitely reducing pattern. Of course it staggers and jumps - you don't find polite patterns in sociology - but it's pretty clearly dropping. There seems to be a plateau followed by a sudden drop ending in a plateau, rinse, repeat. Each era takes less time to reach a plateau. The old era reached a plateau of 100-150 years, then suddenly started making breakthroughs. Those plateaued around 10 years, but at the turn of the century it jumped down to a new low, and that plateaud at 7-8 years per advancement. The eighties saw a plateau of 3-4 years.

Each drop came on the heels of a new system of communication. The printing press, the radio/telephone/airplane, the internet.

When was the last innovation? Can you tell? Has it happened yet?

Has anything happened since 1983 that has changed the way we communicate to such an extent where new ideas come ever faster?

How about satellites? How about HTTP? How about P2P networks?

Would we find other technologies follow the same spikes? Do we see that other technologies - perhaps math, or medicine - follow the same patterns and have the same cycle length?

Well, it's an interesting theory, at any rate.

And later, I'll tell you what I think it means. It's not what you might think I think. :)

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