Technological progress and the internet

The advent of the internet is a blessing to humanity and has given us fast access to the entire knowledge of mankind. But has it increased the speed of technological innovation? If I think of the most significant technological breakthroughs and intellectual achievements of the last 100 years that have revolutionized our lives, they all predate the internet. Some examples:

  • the internal combustion engine
  • quantum mechanics, general relativity
  • the transistor
  • catalytic converters
  • the computer
  • discovery of the DNA
  • discovery of penicillin
  • vaccination

Our most basic needs, food and energy are still provided by technologies invented at the beginning of the last century. Information technology is certainly a powerful enabler, but I would be hard pressed to name any breakthrough invention in the last 15 years on par with the ones on the above list.


I don’t know if these inventions are quite on par with the ones in your list, but they are certainly significant

  • fMRI
  • cell phones
  • Artificial heart (and other organs)
  • robotics
  • genetically modified food
  • large hadron collider

Specifically, robotics is probably the most significant and will become even more important as technology progresses.

And I do think you are minimizing how much the internet has changed people’s lives.

I think the Internet will turn out to be as revolutionary a development as the ones mentioned by Friedemann. History will be altered as information becomes ubiquitous and universally accessible.

The above list of technologies were not brought forward through communication technologies. I’d also argue that the inventions above were engineering achievements using pre-existing technologies rather than representing breakthrough technologies themselves.

I totally agree that information technology has revolutionised our lives but I see it rather as a tool or enabler. The internet in itself doesn’t feed or cure anyone or produce any material goods. So far, I think, it hasn’t given us breakthrough inventions that deal with mankinds most pressing challenges for the 21st century such us resource scarcity, energy security or healthcare.


"I think the Internet will turn out to be as revolutionary a development as the ones mentioned by Friedemann. History will be altered as information becomes ubiquitous and universally accessible. "

Maybe it will, we don’t know yet. Yesterday on the CNN show GPS, Fareed Zakaria argued that the internet has actually made us more shallow, because the most of us read actually less than before the internet and use the net for social interactions rather educating ourselves.

Also, one might argue that mapping of the human genome is an achievement on par with your list. That occurred in the last 15 years.

Let’s just say that as with all technological developments, we do not know their full significance until much later. Whether moving people around in cars and planes, or really any of the items on this list of Friedemann’s will be considered as important as mapping the human genome, or the Internet, in years to come, is not something we can know now.

The fact is that information is spreading faster than ever, more people are being educated than ever before, more people are collaborating and interacting, exchanging specialized information and knowledge than every before, and therefore it is likely that the speed of innovation will continue to increase.

BTW how did catalytic converters make the list?

I agree that an innovation has to stand the test of time. That is why Nobel laureates are normally awarded the price long after the invention. The items on my list however are rock solid ones. No integrated circuit works without a transistor element. And without ICs, well you figure that out for yourself.

Catalysis is the basis for most we consume, eat, own. I think I’d be hard pressed to namy any item I touched today that hasn’t been produced using some kind of catalytic process.

Without the internal combustion engine we don’t transport any goods, produce any food, really don’t do anything the way we do it today. Wether the internet will have a similar impact on our lifestyle as the above technologies have had? We’ll see. But I would argue that breakthrough technologies generated through the web should emerge faster than they did in previous times because product cycles are shorter.

I’d also re-state that I don’t think that lack of fast access to information was a bottleneck for R&D in pre internet times. But I see the power of the web as an educational tool. For that to be effective, let’s bring the internet to the 1.4 billion people living on less than 1,25$ a day. While poverty levels have come down, 1.4 billion is still 75% of the people alive in 1900.

The internet, or better said the WWW was created by Tim Berners Lee at the CERN mainly for one reason: help scientists share documents and research papers. The problem was that at the time document file types were way too many, and the WWW, with HTML, provided better interoperability.

Eventually Internet came into the hands of ordinary people, and I honestly think it is a powerful social tool, allowing spreading of knowledge, awareness and many other good things.

But here comes a pessimistic argument. I believe all kinds of media share a common curve:

Phase 1) The new media is created. People are seeking valuable uses for it. Ideas come by the thousand. There is great hope. Waiting for the ideas to make the best use of the media, the latter is used for not so remarkable things

Phase 2) The new media comes to the peak of its powerfulness, social value. It is used everywhere to do constructive things, mostly. However some people are already brewing ideas about using it for not so laudable purposes.

Phase 3) The new media slowly but incessantly becomes worse and worse, it’s used for silly, nonsensical, even evil ends.

Phase 4) a new media is created, the loop starts again

Now let me explain how this process works in the real world.

TV: when it was created, it was being used for not so noticeable things (quizzes, news…), but obviously the whole world was interested in exploiting the TV for the best. This was phase 1.
So it soon became a powerful media, with open university courses which taught people valuable skills, documentaries, it started to promote good behaviors in society (help the poor, the handicapped etc.). In Italy for example TV, especially in the 60’s and 70’s, really gave birth to the country’s official language. Before TV, 80% of Italians spoke only their own dialect.This was phase 2.
Now TV, at least from my point of view, is full of trash, violence, the news are biased beyond any description, even Disney is not making anymore good cartoons but crap like Hannah Montana and similar, which actually do not teach kids nothing. Is it possible that in my country each time I switch on the TV I switch it off after 5 seconds because there is not one thing worthwhile to see? Phase 3.
Then came the internet. Phase 4

** the printing press was created half a millennium ago, it is a media that takes time to evolve.

When the printing press was created, the most obvious use, printing books, came to man’s mind. So it was done. It helped spread knowledge with smaller costs.
Phase 1.
Soon it became so powerful, in terms of new ideas conveyed and contribution to human knowledge, that the Church was so afraid of loosing his throne, built upon the ignorance of the vast majority of people, that established the index of prohibited books. However this was of no use. During the french revolution the newly born newspapers advocated freedom, equality, fraternity. It had a benign social impact. Phase 2.
I think press has not yet arrived at phase 3, being a slowly evolving media. However its true that now there bazillions of trash magazines, biased newspapers etc.

Now, where is the Internet? Surely it has passed phase 1, when it had those cute raw HTML pages with animated gifs and freaky colors.
We are all witnessing how the internet is being used for nobler purposes now. Think of elearning, ushahidi, communication, charity, citizen journalism. I think the internet now is on its way towards full phase 2. So the best is still yet to come.

But has anyone of you asked himself about what would the phase 3 of the internet look like? A giant firewall like that of China? Non-existent privacy? 1984? Something even worse? It could be nothing at all actually, nothing really important. But it will come.

And then phase 4 will come, and the internet will be just the past, unless it won’t have made enough damage.

What do you think of it?

I think the internet is mostly used for very mundane things like chatting, social networking. The vast amount of all emails sent out today are actually spam. One of the most profitable internet industries is the pornographic industry. Now, will the internet be a catalyst for groundbreaking innovation across all major disciplines? I don’t really know.

Friedemann, I think you focus too much on the dark side of everything. I mean the pornographic industry is not a threat to humanity. Those who like porn are satisfied, those who don’t don’t have to watch those kind of things. You cannot state infallibly that social networking and chatting are mundane things. What if in your office the telephone suddenly does not work, but you tell your boss anything important you had to say to him via chat to meet the deadline?

Everything has a dark side. My argument was that eventually, alsportationthough I admit not always, the dark side takes over the bright side, but then something good happens again.

Plato said writing was going to put an end to the art of mnemonics. It didn’t. At least it did not swipe it off the planet’s face. Do you think writing has led to disaster?

What about the wheel? It meant faster transportation, but also some types of physical torture. Would you have preferred the man not to invent the wheel at all?

I didn’t say the porn industry is a threat to humanity. My main point was that I am not sure that the web has been or will be a great catalyst for innovation. In my area of research which is material science, we certainly do not use the web a lot to direct our research, so I don’t buy the argument that the web will necessarily boost the rate of innovation across the board, at least I am not sure.

We can choose to be optimistic and look for opportunities, or we can choose to be pessimistic, see only the dark side of everything. The advantage of the pessimistic view is that we can then say “I told you say” if things don’t work out.

  1. The Internet has made LingQ possible!
  2. Already the Internet provides a vast quantity of educational resources, courses, tutoring services (like the brilliant Khan academy for example) is available, for free or at little cost. And we are just getting started.
  3. Indian scientists hope to develop a $20 electronic tablet.
  4. Cell phone technology will spread the telephone in the third world faster than was possible with conventional phones.

Now combine all of this and what do you have. Connected world wide learning opportunities on a phenomenal scale.

We can look at this vision, or we can like Friedemann, focus on spam and pornography.

well, I think scientific progress is going on in the world. You just need to buy a scientific magazine, you’ll find people who are building a fusion nuclear reactor, others who are finding greener ways to do everything.

I believe that, as new discoveries are made and new tools invented, the next ones are always more specific and not so widely important like the others. For example: the transistor is great, but what invention was more important? The transistor or the light bulb?
Obviously the light bulb, the transistor wouldn’t have been there without it.

Similarly, new scientific breakthroughs from now on will increasingly have a major impact on smaller&more specific areas of human development, rather than change the world completely as did fire, the wheel, agriculture…

@ steve

You are quite right. Struggling and hoping, human kind will be able to get by thanks to its creativity. I’m sure the internet will die some day (like the telegraph), but then there will be an even more powerful tool.

Actually one time I watched a TED keynote. In this keynote, a guy said we are not going to run out of oil because humans will find other ways. I thought it brilliant. It was proof that this guy had studied history.
But in the comments as always people said fotovoltaic & wind is the only way (my region is being invaded with all this solar panels, spoiling nature even more than oil) or other ones who said oil is infinite and there can’t be a better source of energy.

I agree 100% with Steve. Let’s shake off our shoulders this dystopian behavior


I agree that windfarms on land are no solution to our energy needs. Off shore might be better, however they are ugly and massive killers of birds, wiht limited potential. Solar has better potential.

I don’t think oil is infinite but I believe nuclear and coal and oil and gas will take us a long way until we make energy more effectively from hydrogen and from the sun’s energy. We also find more synthetic ways to make fertilizer and to increase the fertility of the soil.

I do believe that non-renewable resources should be taxed at a higher rate than renewable resources to discourage their use, but only if these taxes replaced existing taxes so that government cannot just continue to grow unendingly in its arrogance and waste.


I couldn’t read the “Optimist” book yet but from what I saw from the author’s interview, you have pretty much restated his position on energy. Why do you/does he think wind is so bad? I thought amongst the alternatives it is the best so far. When you say solar has more potential, do you mean photovoltaic or solar thermal?

Hydrogen, artificial photosynthesis, nuclear fusion, the the prospects of these are so vague that we shouldn’t get too carried away about them. Hydrogen was very fashionable in the car industry in the 90ies but has been largely abandoned since then.

I think one big challenge is how we will produce liquid fuels for transportation since renewables/nuclear don’t provide that. And more importantly, how far oil/gas/coal can carry us. In the energy context 20 to 30 years is not a long time.

Before I get accused again to be a pessimistic doomsayer, here is what I propose:

  • tax fossil fuel use (agree with Steve)
  • invest massive tax money in developing a new energy infrastructure (e-grid, hydrogen grid if necessary)
  • support local supply chains since we will have much less liquid fuels
  • address energy efficiency (probably our best source of new energy)
  • prepare ourselves for a lifestyle with less consumption


Wind equals large ecological foot print, concrete, steel, roads, dead birds etc, for unreliable power.

“I mean the pornographic industry is not a threat to humanity. Those who like porn are satisfied, those who don’t don’t have to watch those kind of things”

I don’t know if it is a huge threat to humanity, but it may be an issue in some divorce proceedings and some people believe that pornography is a catalyst of sexual violence. Maybe it is a threat to some people’s humanity. I know two women who were raped (and no, not by men they knew). As a nurse, I can’t let comments like yours pass.

@ mait

I understand that my comment may be misleading. What was I trying to convey to Friedemann is that everything can be looked at from different point of views. One thing cannot possibly be all good or all evil. Reality is a greyscale picture, not a black and white one