Computers Are Overrated

Since the ancestors of homo sapiens first made tools out of rocks and sticks and grass, society has been transformed by the development of ever more powerful technologies, from stone axes to the steam engine to the GPS satellite. Computers and the internet, the most important technologies of recent decades, are the latest step in this long, long process.

How important are these technologies? How much have they changed society? Compared to other events in living memory, they have been revolutionary. The world’s most valuable corporations are now mostly internet software companies. The internet has been responsible for the rise and fall of heads of government, and sometimes of entire governments. Computers and the internet play a large role in the daily life and experience of billions of people. I am writing this on a computer right now to share it over the internet.

Commentators have therefore described computers and their effects as among the greatest transformations to ever strike human society, or occasionally even the single most important transition in the history of the species. We see this in the use of terms like “Information Age” or “Digital Revolution”. According to Wikipedia’s article on the Information Age, “During rare times in human history, there have been periods of innovation that have transformed human life. The Neolithic Age, the Scientific Age and the Industrial Age all, ultimately, induced discontinuous and irreversible changes in the economic, social and cultural elements of the daily life of most people. Traditionally, these epochs have taken place over hundreds, or in the case of the Neolithic Revolution, thousands of years, whereas the Information Age swept to all parts of the globe in just a few years.” Or in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” framework popularized by the World Economic Forum, human history has seen four distinct industrial revolutions, and fully half of them are the result of computer technology.

From a historical perspective, however, the social changes caused by computers do not live up to these claims. There are many earlier technologies that have also transformed the structure of society and the landscape of power: bronzeworking, electricity, antibiotics, the horse collar, the radio, gunpowder, the railroad, the atom bomb, contraception, the printing press… any student of history could keep the list going. To put computers into historical perspective, we cannot look only at the effects of computers. We also need to compare these effects to those of other major technologies.

There is no definitive comparison, but one rough categorization scheme is below:

  1. Utterly transformative. The difference between societies with and without this technology was on par with the difference between societies of different hominid species. Examples: Agriculture, writing, fire.
  2. Civilization-scale. This technology was sufficient to force a complete reorganization of one of a civilization’s most basic functions, such as economic production or political legitimacy. Examples: Centralized irrigation, printing press, steam engine.
  3. Transformative. While this did not force a major reorganization of how the civilization’s core institutions related to each other, the individual institutions in the relevant fields were forced to reorganize themselves to adapt to the new technology, or else were supplanted by those that did. Examples: Railroads, automobiles, broadcast radio, muskets.
  4. Decisive. While the civilization’s core institutions could adopt the new technology without major reorganization, details of the technology’s powers and limits were a major factor in the specific balance of power between institutions and a source of local advantage. Many particular institutions rose and fell as a result of the new technology—companies went bankrupt, militaries lost wars, governments lost elections. Examples: Artillery, airplanes, television.

A comparison like this cannot be perfectly objective. You might argue over exactly where to place different technologies. Perhaps the railroads should be at level 4 rather than level 3, depending on how much of a role you assign them in the development of megacorporations (or “trusts”, as they were called at the time). Or you might use a different ranking system that emphasizes something else, e.g. whether a technology changes the total number of people a society can support, or how much of an average person’s time is spent interacting with the technology—this scale focuses on how much a technology affects the structure of society only because that’s the question we’re asking right now.

Still, we can get a very rough ranking of how different technologies stack up against each other. It is safe to say that writing transformed society more than the telegraph, or that the printing press transformed society more than the airplane, or the steam engine transformed society more than artillery. Different rankings will disagree on edge cases, but big differences should be consistent. Keeping in mind that this process is inherently very fuzzy, let’s run with this scale for now.

Where do computers and the internet fall on this scale?

These technologies have allowed many individual institutions to dominate the competitive landscape. In business there are companies like Microsoft, Google, and many more. In politics there are the campaigns of candidates like Barack Obama or Donald Trump. Advertising and political education which had previously been done via other media has shifted more and more to the internet. The transformation in journalism, academia, and intellectual discourse more broadly has been especially dramatic.

Economically, computers have had their strongest impact on record-keeping and administration, where they have been truly revolutionary. More and more commerce is being done over the internet. Industrially, these technologies’ effects have also been substantial, but hardly overwhelming. Computerized tools such as articulated robot arms or CNC machine tools occupy very important niches. Thanks to tools like these as well as incremental efficiency gains from computerized administration, computers have helped industrial productivity to continue its long-term growth, albeit at rates slower than those seen in the first half of the 20th century. But the industrial effects of computers are not nearly as deep or as widespread as the industrial effects of famous earlier innovations such as interchangeable parts or Bessemer steel.

There are also the arguments that computers should be considered revolutionary because of predicted future changes. Mass automation will transform industrial production as deeply as the Industrial Revolution of old. The blockchain will usher in a new financial age. Swarms of autonomous combat drones will make infantry obsolete. Chatbots will put the laptop class out of work. Unfriendly artificial general intelligence will disassemble humanity for parts. Perhaps reality will someday catch up to the think tank whitepapers and science fiction—it wouldn’t be the first time. Or perhaps belief in these hypothetical technologies will peter out like we’ve seen in quests for the holy grails of previous generations, like moon bases, fusion power, or the cure for cancer. Predicting the future of society is hard, and predicting the future of technology is even harder. Narratives which try to claim a special place for computers on the basis of predicted future technologies, which could arrive in ten years or a hundred years or never, cannot play a role in our assessment of what computers have achieved so far.

Taking all this together, in terms of the four-level scale above, I would rank computers at level 3. This judgment is necessarily a bit subjective, and I can imagine events developing so that in the year 2080 we look back and move the classification up or down a notch. Still, this lets us put some bounds on the computer’s importance relative to other technologies. Computers have changed our economy, but not nearly as much as the steam engine did. The internet has changed our intellectual environment and structures of political legitimacy somewhat more than the transition from radio to television, but much less than the printing press. In short, computers are a big deal, and very probably the most important technological development in living memory. But from the perspective of human history as a whole, the computer doesn’t stand out. There have been dozens of technologies that were at least as important, although probably fewer than a hundred.

Then why do so many people think computers are the most important transformation ever? Because many of these commentators aren’t trying to place the development of computers within a firm understanding of the grand sweep of history. They’re trying to explain their own direct experience of the world. In their own lifetimes, computers were indeed the most revolutionary new technology, and compared to the things that they experience firsthand or spend time thinking about, nothing else comes close. It’s tempting to attribute big changes to the most powerful force you’ve experienced, and it’s tempting to believe that the changes happening in your own lifetime are the most important in human history. Or sometimes people are trying to hype up new projects and products, which of course calls for boosting the present technology and gliding past the previous cases. But in either case, the reason their viewers and readers let them get away with it is that most people just don’t know the history they’re implicitly comparing to.

To take one personal pet peeve as an example, I have heard dozens and dozens of people describe how the internet has created never-before-seen problems in journalism, completely unaware that the unprecedented problems they describe were just as bad or worse in the journalism of, say, the late 1800s. Of course it’s perfectly fine to think about these things without knowing all the history, but making historical comparisons without knowing the history is dangerous. You don’t need to know who Charles Sumner was before you say that news media is more polarized today than it was in your childhood. However, if you want to say that social media has made the discourse more fragmented and conspiracy-prone than ever before, you do need to know who Alfred Dreyfus was.

Comparisons like these are necessary to thinking about how dramatically computers have changed our world. Media and intellectual discourse have been transformed many many times in modern history, and evaluating the scale of the internet’s changes requires a memory that goes back further than American media’s golden age of the late 20th century. While anyone can and should observe the very clear fact that computers are changing the economy, figuring out the significance of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” requires a comfortable knowledge of the First. When you hear a claim that computers have caused some gigantic change, you should ask yourself “Compared to what?”

Plenty of common arguments cast computers and the internet as far more transformative than they actually are, often through ignorance of history or through wildly overconfident predictions about the near future. Yet there’s no need to exaggerate. When taking the long view and properly comparing computers to other technologies, they are still a pretty big deal. We can think about their effects on society even if they haven’t caused a fundamental transformation.

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