Thoughts on the Rapidly Changing Pace of Technology

SingularityI recently listened to a podcast in which Matt Mullenweg, one of the WordPress founders, explained that he and other developers are trying to push out new releases of WordPress as quickly as possible — every 90 or 120 days. He said users like an accelerated development cycle. Software that stagnates, which isn’t updated but every year and a half, loses its appeal to users.

I like change, even when it’s not always for the better. Change is evidence of a creative, active mind experimenting and engaging in life. Because the IT industry thrives on rapidly changing technologies, those who work in IT should embrace change rather than fight it.

The Appeal of Change

For some, change holds the promise of a more intriguing life. In a report titled “2007 Ten-Year Forecast” from the Institute for the Future, the authors begin:

We suspect that, like migrants, we humans are all beginning a long trek through strange territories we have only rumors of. The rumors come in many forms from many sources, some more reliable than others. 

We hold the hand of technology as it leads us through new, strange lands. Intriguing rumors of what we’ll find (cyborg cultures, apocalopyses) compel us forward.

In an article on how technology is changing IT, CNN writer Nora Isaacs says,

According to the experts, the next century looks like an airplane runway that never ends, with the technology careening faster and faster toward an unknown terrain.

Unlike other fields that are more predictable, technology moves so so quickly, its developmental pace is exponential. Whereas some fields may have changed little in hundreds of years, you can barely predict how technology will transform society in 20 years. The future is an unknown.

Raymond Kurzweil, a popular futurist author who believes an event of profound human change, known as the Singularity, will transform the fabric of humanity, begins his essay on the law of accelerating returns with the following:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The ‘returns,’ such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the Singularity—technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.

Change is not linear. Those who experience stress at today’s changes will hardly survive when the pace is tripled or magnified twenty-fold.

Paul Saffo, a well-known figure on future studies, explains that every 30 years or so, a new technology transforms society. In the earlier part of the 20th century, the transforming technology was chemistry (medicines, plastics). Then developments in physics followed (atomic energy, circuits). Now information technology is transforming society. In the 21st century, the change will be biological.

Change and Technical Writers

For some reason, many technical writers have an aversion to new technologies. So often I hear people ask questions like,

What problem did you have that caused you to seek out and implement X technical solution? (As if you can only explore a new technology as a solution to an existing problem.)

Or

How will this change things for the better, making it easier and more beneficial for the users? (As if emerging technologies must only have proven, tangible user-benefits before they can be considered.)

These are good questions, but with emerging technologies it’s not always possible to know the consequences or benefits. Particularly with wikis and blogs, it’s hard to see the larger effect they will have. When the microchip was first developed, an IBM engineer asked, “But what . . . is it good for?” (1968).

The history of the computer is full of pessimistic reactions to its importance. In 1977, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Exactly what we’re moving towards isn’t always clear, but it’s intriguing. Christopher Meyer and Stanley Davis explain that “everything is becoming electronically connected to everything else: products, people, companies, countries, everything.” 

As information workers in IT, we should keep in mind the importance of change within our industry. I’ve seen incredible resistance to new tools (such as with the RoboHelp/Flare debate) simply because some tech writers are resistant to change. (In Kiersey speak, they are “guardians” rather than “innovators.”) However, we should be the earliest adopters of technology, exploring and analyzing its potential uses.

Disadvantages of Change

Skeptics of new technology are quick to point out the disadvantages and potential problems associated with emerging technologies. Hollywood dystopias are familiar with the paradox of progress: that each step forward is often a step into a nightmare as well. One writer explains:

“Rarely does a new technology solve a problem because it has some type of external byproduct that we can’t envision initially. (Joe Vanden Plas, Wisconsin Technology Network)

Even with failures and drawbacks, we keep pushing forward, experimenting with new ideas and techniques. Technology creates change, and the change forces new technology (Isaacs). The cycle continues and feeds on itself.

Madcap FlareAdobe Robohelp

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Rapidly Changing Pace of Technology

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  3. letters

    You have to wonder whether this exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth and the resulting singularity will lead to an even more deeply divided world where billions today still struggle for daily subsistance and a maintenance of basic health. Can they ever take even a small part in the technological advances from which we benefit?

    The continued march of technology also assumes a world where access to resources is not constrained and climate does not much alter, two variables we can’t predict and which much empirical evidence indicates the opposite. We’re in for quite a ride.

  4. roGER

    A few years ago, on my 40th birthday, I posted this on my blog about so-called “change” at present:

    As a teenager listening to my grandparents who were born in the very early years of the 20th century, I was always struck by the massive technological change they’d witnessed. They all had vivid memories of horse-drawn transport, airships (yes, airships!) and the first aeroplanes, as well as the gradual replacement of coal for heating and powering ships and locomotives.

    My generation hasn’t seen anything like the same degree of change. Here’s a brief list of the things I can remember that have all but disappeared:

    * Black and white televisions
    * Mechanical watches
    * Electro-mechanical telephones
    * Record players and of course records
    * Microfilm records
    * Tape recorders.

    As for new things, the only really significant technology for most of us has been:

    * Mobile phones
    * Compact Disks
    * Affordable home computers and the Internet
    * Quartz watches.

    Of course there are a ton of improvements that have occured to make life much safer and better for us all. Largely invisible things like the replacement of lead pipes for drinking water, quiet fuel efficient aircraft, more reliable and faster cars, the development of new drugs and medical technology, computers replacing paper filing systems, better artificial fibers and so on.

    But none of these things represent a paradigm shift (to use the management consultant speak) of anything like the magnitude of the replacement of the horse by the internal combustion engine, or the development of the aircraft.

    As for the significance of all this, I’m very pleased I have some memories of the moon landings – in my opinion the most important event of the 20th century and the only thing it will be remembered for in centuries to come.

    Of the short list above, the Internet is the only development that really seems significant. It has changed the lives of millions of us at least in the developed world. It’s too early to say just what it’s long-term impact will be although it, or it’s successors must be here to stay.

    For everything else, despite the image we may have of ourselves, there’s been a steady improvement in all areas of life with things becoming better made and more reliable. Welcome, worthy, but unspectacular.

    So remember, despite what the management consultants might scrawl on the whiteboard we do not live in revolutionary times of rapid technological change.

  5. Scot Herrick

    Without going philosophical (I agree with Roger above) but at a more ‘runway’ level, the increased number of releases in software are often filled with untested code resulting in bugs, security leaks, and making existing tools (read: plugins) inoperable.

    Consequently, for the user of the technology, the pace of change has made life much harder — not the easier way promised by the change makers.

    I’ll take reliability in the platform over releasing something new every 90-120 days just to move the pace along. I’ll take the reliability of my technology platform working well so that I can concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing: writing content for my site.

    I’m not advocating a release a year. There has to be a balance between releasing new stuff and reliability for the user.

    Too often, we just get the release and the (internal, hidden from the customer) vow that we’ll fix stuff later. We get the cost of that unreliability.

  6. Tom

    Roger, I liked your comment and agree — there are many changes that aren’t necessarily big changes like paradigm shifts. I think if we had paradigm shifts every month it would be very challenging to live (but also very exciting).

    The Internet has been a significant shift. I also think Web 2.0, particularly blogging, has also been a significant shift.

    Scott, you’re right that change without an increased benefit in the platform isn’t welcome. There is quite a bit of debate in the WordPress community about the frequent updates to WordPress that only seem to be security fixes. Because updating can be such a hassle, it does cause one to reflect more about change.

    Thanks for reading my blog. I really enjoy getting your feedback. It helps me see the topics I’m writing about more clearly.

  7. Tom

    letters, I agree that access to resources is a huge issue. The digital divide will continue to grow. However, laptops are getting cheaper and technology is spreading to developed countries fairly rapidly. I’m interested to see the emergence of China in the IT world.

  8. Janet

    I’m with Scott. As someone who learned to type on a manual typewriter (because no one had electric ones!), I’ve been around long enough to experience too many software changes that seemed to be primarily for the benefit of software companies’ bottom lines. At this stage in my life my brain doesn’t really want to take in new technical information unless it’s going to make the product or process _better_, not just different.

  9. Warren

    Forget about the ‘large’ technological changes that are in your face – what about all the subtle, not so-obvious changes and cultural innovations that have had a major impact on the way we live:

    – CDs & DVDs
    – digital cameras
    – bank cards
    – cheap airflights (thanks to advances in technology and competition)
    – playstations
    – microwave ovens, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, lawn-mowers and other household appliances
    – cosmetic surgey
    – toilet paper

    We tend to take change for granted, not realising the inciduous and incremental impact this has on the way we live. I remember growing up, not having a TV or washing machine. I used to help my mom wash the clothes in the bathtub and spend my time playing in the garden and reading comic books.

    Nowdays my kids spend their time watching TV or videos, or playing on the computer and playstation. There would be a major crisis if we didn’t have a washing machine or dishwasher!

    The first point is this – change is not just about technology (it never is). It’s about the way that technology is implemented in society and comes to affect our lives. Think about the Iraq war and the way that technology has enabled this to be fought – technology that has enabled small and highly trained armies to be rapidly mobilized halfway across the world – in what many years ago would have taken millions of soldiers and years to achieve. And the Iraq war illustrates quite clearly some of the limitations of technology in solving human problems.

    The second point – so far technology has not changed who we are. In Western societies, we may be stronger, healthier, better educated and live longer — but we still share the same physical characteristics, thought processes and emotions as our ancestors from thousands of years ago.

  10. avi

    I agree that technical writer must keep pace with the technology they document. However, as for the writing technology, one can produce the same amount of documentation he did five years ago, using the exactly same tool. Whether it is FM, RH or plain Word, productivity hasn’t improved recently (I wish it were).

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