Technology growth is a pyramid

Growing up in what’s now called “Silicon Valley”, I’ve been surrounded by technology my entire life. One of my ongoing side studies has been observing and predicting the growth and direction of technology.

I used to think technology growth was linear or exponential – every update an improvement over what came before. After noticing things lacking in my iPhone that I’d liked in my Palm Pilot, I started thinking technology growth was cyclical.

Now, looking back at the history of our recent technological development, and farther back at the technology of older civilizations, I’ve realized that technology growth isn’t linear, exponential, or cyclical. It’s more like a pyramid of dependencies that must be continually maintained.

Technology doesn’t grow – it’s built based on the abilities and needs of a society at a given moment, and rapidlydeteriorates from there. Any given technology’s life is more comparable to a piano note’s envelope than to a linear graph: hit the note and it’s loud at first, but rapidly decays unless you keep hitting it. Technology is the same: any given technology, be it a phone, toaster, space ship, or piece of software, requires constant maintenance and development, or it rusts, rots, or otherwise deteriorates, pretty rapidly. How long would your phone work without a cell tower or electricity?

In addition, higher-level technology is built, like a pyramid, atop lower-level technology. This is very visible in software, where applications are built on top of libraries and frameworks that are built on protocols that run on operating systems that run on more protocols that run on modular hardware that’s built of specially-engineered materials that are skillfully formed from ores that are skillfully mined from the ground (or other sources), that require power provided by other hardware passed over specially formed ores also mined from the ground. If any one of these levels isn’t maintained, the higher levels rapidly, often immediately, cease to function.

This means that there’s a baseline of technology, which is roughly that which any individual can build him/herself from naturally available materials. From there, people working together can build levels of technology. If any of the groups fails to maintain their part of the technology pyramid, their part must either be rapidly replaced (in place or by an equivalent to which the dependent pieces can quickly move), or the pyramid collapses.

This has a few implications I find interesting:

  • Space flight: If someone isn’t actively trying to get to space and has a need to do so, that technology will deteriorate. We went to the moon (and some believe we didn’t), and then stopped going. Elon Musk said in a TED interview that the reason he started SpaceX is that space travel isn’t inevitable (pointing out that we went to the moon, then stopped).
  • We might not be (in fact I think it’s likely) the first technologically advanced civilization on Earth. It’s possible, even probable, that other civilizations have left the planet. If the smart people of a society left and the technology was forgotten, we’re the descendants of the people that didn’t leave. I think the Egyptians (or another group around the same time) discovered a means of lifting heavy rocks and sand, which, given the presence of similar structures around the globe at the time, was probably common knowledge. It may well have enabled them to travel across the globe, or off it. Somehow, that technological knowledge was forgotten, and now we don’t know how to build pyramids.
  • Colonizing Mars will be more like a frontier farming community than like Star Trek. Any technology on Mars would have to be shipped from Earth. You couldn’t build, or even fix, the most basic PC on Mars. There’s no Intel to build a chip, nobody to manufacture the case, and really nobody to build or maintain a power plant. Plus, if you’re on Mars, your biggest concern is how to grow food and breathe – the need for a PC would be vastly lessened, and it would therefore not be maintained.
  • Last but not least, if you end up in a primitive village on another planet, you’re not going to make them technologically advanced. If you’re lucky, you’ll make them sandwiches. 😉