Diminishing returns?

— 7:30 PM on December 30, 2000

/. pointed me over to this interesting article over at US News. The author discusses the slowing pace of technological change and its impact on society as a whole. Making some interesting points, the article might make you question just how much of a difference technological advances of the last few decades have made in everyday life. Definitely makes for interesting conversation and debate.

Can we make any parallel claim about the single greatest technology of our own time? It remains possible that networked computers and other new information technologies will one day create similar, societywide bursts in productivity, health, and wealth. Yet to date, the marginal gains computers have brought to communications are modest even compared with the improvements made by the telegraph. The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866 reduced the time required to send a message from New York to London from about a week to a few minutes. Notes economist Alan Blinder: "No modern IT innovation has, or I dare say will, come close to such a gain!"

And with computers, it is also possible that their largest benefits have already been realized. Consider the gain in productivity achieved when offices started converting from typewriters to word processors. A circa-1978 Wang 10A word processor with daisy-wheel printer, though expensive and difficult to operate, offered a quantum leap over the typewriter because it allowed users to correct and edit documents and manage mailing lists at far greater speed. Every year since, word processors have become cheaper, more powerful, and easier to use, but the marginal gain in productivity thereby achieved continues to decline. Indeed, for many users, converting to, say, the latest generation of Word, after having already invested in learning to use WordPerfect five years before, entails a net loss of productivity.

Have all the really good inventions already been invented? Have we reached a point where only marginal advances are possible? What do you think?
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