It used to be said that one of the “benefits” of war was the great leap forward in technology that accompanied each. So for example, the technology to build long range bombers to carry death and destruction to enemy cities in distant lands was used after the second world war to carry holidaymakers to those same destinations. We can’t imagine a world without mass air transportation now. Similarly, the cold war race fostered America’s defense advance research projects agency out of which emerged the Internet. We can’t imagine a world without that either. Each war throughout history has examples such as these and as periods of development each stands out for furious inventiveness compared with peace time lethargy. It remains to be seen what “benefits” we may derive from technological leaps due to the war on terror, such as drones and the data mining of vast amounts of individual personal communications.
But are we living today in an era of extraordinary technological progress that used to only occur during times of war? Science fiction writer Madsen Pirie thinks we are. If you read his blog here, you will see regular posts highlighting such advances. Today’s is a case in point: “A fusion breakthrough releases more energy than it takes to achieve it.” As he explains and as I certainly remember, nuclear fusion as a source of limitless energy has been promised for decades, with “promise” being the operative. It has seemed at times to be akin to the ancient goal of turning base metal into gold or the pursuit of perpetual motion. But it draws ever closer to realisation. The latest news is that for the first time genuine fusion has been achieved that produces more energy than was used to initiate it. It’s only been achieved on an experimental scale and I can see it would take a decade or more to scale it up to production, but this is a significant step nonetheless.
I think we really are living in a golden age of technology. Medical technology has advanced beyond recognition; people today are living longer with diseases that not long ago would have quickly killed them. Aircraft and road vehicles travel further on less fuel than we could have imagined only a few years ago, and in much greater safety. SatNav has transformed the way we travel too. And when once it took months to have a very basic telephone installed in your home, we now carry around mobile phones that have more power than a desktop computer of just a few years ago, but in addition they are connected to the Internet and they take better photos than a top of the range camera used to do. Even something as mundane as shopping has been transformed with supermarkets that have fresh produce brought from all around the world where you can wander round ‘ringing up’ your own purchases as you go and paying for them at an unmanned till with a piece of plastic or, even, your mobile phone. The greatest advance in technology, however, has to be social. Google, Facebook and Twitter have changed the world. People everywhere can interact as never before, in ways we are still struggling to comprehend and in ways that are literally revolutionary. Twitter in particular has been the precursor or the igniter of popular uprisings that have toppled governments making a texted word more powerful than tear gas or bullets. Now that is technology at its best and it is happening without the impetus of a war.
There are many technology posts on Madsen’s blog that are well worth reading. He is also president of the Adam Smith Institute so a lot of his posts also concern economics and the free market, and you might also enjoy his eclectic range of moral and social topics.