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The Pace of Technology Change is Not Accelerating

We hear all the time that pace of technology innovation is accelerating, and that society is changing faster than ever, but the data argues otherwise. As the great US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously insisted, we are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.

The Pace of Technology Change is Not Accelerating

Experts generally agree that both radios and black-and-white televisions were adopted much faster than personal computers or mobile phones.

The time it takes for a new technology to be adopted by 50 percent of US households has long been used by economic historians for cross-technology comparisons. As shown in the figure below, these experts generally agree that both radios (eight years) and black-and-white televisions (nine) reached the 50 percent threshold much faster than personal computers (17) or mobile phones (15). (Electricity and telephony required massive new physical infrastructure, and thus understandably took much longer.) While the precise numbers and dates can be debated for every country, the general pattern is clear.

What about the extraordinarily rapid growth of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, Uber et al? Economists rightly put these services in a separate category because they do not require customer investment in any new hardware or physical infrastructure. In this sense, web sites and mobile apps are more akin to TV shows, films, songs or software application programs, which have often gained widespread acceptance similarly fast (or faster) in the past. Even the web itself has essentially ridden on top of the wired infrastructures already deployed by the electricity, telephony and cable TV industries.

Table: Technology is ‘diversifying’ more than ‘accelerating’

But historical data and debates aside, the most important message of the figure is that the early internet of things (IoT) offerings – Fitbits, 3D printers, smart thermostats – are also being adopted relatively slowly. The lack of enthusiasm for Google Glass and the Apple Watch are just the latest examples of what has often been an uphill IoT struggle. We expect this pattern to continue. Of the devices listed above, only 3D goggles seem likely to reach the 50 percent adoption threshold in less than ten years. If smart watches become untethered from a supporting phone, and if drones can shrink dramatically in price and size, they too might be rapidly adopted. The others have almost no chance at all. This is why we believe that the internet of things will in general prove more sustaining than disruptive.

The impact of technology is expanding on an increasing number of fronts

Given these facts, why do so many of us have this sense of accelerating change? There seem to be two main reasons. First, it is human nature to think that one’s own time is special – just look at all the politicians who say with a straight face that “This election is one of the most important in our nation’s history.” But more substantively, many people conflate diversification with acceleration. The impact of technology is expanding on an increasing number of fronts, and this proliferation can mask the fact that the overall rate of adoption for any particular technology hasn’t really increased. This realization can help us all keep today’s market hype in perspective.


Rachel Guthrie 19.41PM 04 Nov 2016

What perhaps is more pertinent is the rate of change within a category, for example from black and white tv, to colour, to LCD, to 4K. When looking at mobile phones, a similar pattern emerges with the power of computing they offer, the storage, and the functions - the mobile phone camera of today outstrips all but the highest commercial cameras of the 80's. For web sites, the technology that underlies them is not so much the world wide web, but rather the devices and operating systems which have evolved massively over the years since introduction. I would postulate for example that the technology of websites has adapted and progressed faster than the rate of technology of motor vehicles (a more mature product). I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

David Moschella 16.35PM 20 Nov 2016

Hi Rachel, Thx for your thoughtful comments. I completely agree that information technology is improving faster than many other industries, but to me this seems quite different from saying that the rate of technology change is "accelerating". Almost by definition, Moore's Law implies that the rate of technology improvement is pretty much a constant, doubling every 18 months or so. So i think what you have is a constant rate of product improvement, coupled with overall adoption rates that are not all that different from the technologies of the past. Hope this is helpful

Ahmed Fasih 18.20PM 14 Dec 2016

Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with the spirit of this article to ask if web technology, since its inception in the early 1990s, experienced a faster rate of growth in its first ~20 years than the first two decades of automotive technology, or electric motor technology, or telegraph technology? I’m a web programmer, and I wouldn’t be inclined to say that web technologies change any faster or better than those.

David Moschella 20.04PM 03 Jan 2017

Yes, that would also be a fair way of looking at this issue, and I think you are right that there wouldn't be a great deal of difference.

Sonia Eland 00.54AM 05 Jan 2017

Do you think that we are 'feeling' an accelerated pace of change, because society is actually shifting to another model - from an industrial-era based society that has a certain way of operating eg. command and control and hierarchies, inside-out control from significant capital assets and IP etc, to a collaborative platform-era eg. distributed outside-in control, gained from collaborating with others and renting resources and assets. This means the rules we are used to are being broken. New winners are emerging without the resources typically expected. Creating new ways to do things. We are in a transition between an old world and a new world, which will create a lot of mixed emotions and will make us 'feel' like the pace of change us accelerating.

Roy Wall 11.36AM 31 Dec 2016

I don't beleive Moore's Law to be true for all time. For several years I have argued that when IT technology became able to process video in real time, the technology began to develop more slowly. For example, recent developments have only been QUANTITATIVE: more dimensions (3D) and more resolution (4K), but these have not caught on fast.

David Moschella 19.39PM 03 Jan 2017

I agree, diminishing returns often kick in.

David Moschella 14.45PM 05 Jan 2017

I think this is a wonderful point/observation with much truth in it. Worth thinking upon further. Thx for sharing

Dennis 03.28AM 29 Jan 2017

Some of these inventions can't be compared to others for various reasons. Take cell phone adoption vs PCs/WWW, for example. Cell phones had to deal with a regulated sector. Specifically, telephony regulations and radio spectrum rights. Whereas PCs and the WWW were more like the initial adoption days of electricity and the first phone networks -- wild frontier. Also some are really geared less for household use and more for community use, like 3D printers. Eventually we shall have advanced 3D printers in homes, but the bulk of such advancements will be in industry and DIY clubs both initially and possibly forever.

david 16.15PM 08 Feb 2017

yes, there are always differences between industries/products, especially 3DP, but I think the broad patterns still hold up pretty well.


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Research Commentary

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David Moschella
Research Fellow
David Moschella, based in the United States, is a Research Fellow for Leading Edge Forum.  David's focus is on industry disruptions, machine intelligence and related business model strategies.  He is the project lead for our 2017 research into Disrupting ‘The Professions’ – Scenarios for Human and Machine Expertise. David was previously Research Director of the programme. David’s key areas of expertise include globalization, industry restructuring, disruptive technologies, and the co-evolution of business and IT.  David is the author of multiple research reports.  His most recently published reports include Embracing 'the Matrix' and the Machine Intelligence Era (March 2016) and The Myths and Realities of Digital Disruption (September 2015). An author and columnist, David’s second book, Customer-Driven IT, How Users Are Shaping Technology Industry Growth, was published in 2003 by Harvard Business School Press.  The book predicted the shift from a supplier-driven to today’s customer-led IT environment.  His 1997 book, Waves of Power, assessed global competition within the IT supplier community.  He has written some 200 columns for Computerworld, the IT Industry’s leading publication on Enterprise IT, and has presented at countless industry events all around the world. David previously spent 15 years with International Data Corporation, where he was IDC’s main spokesperson on global IT industry trends and was responsible for its worldwide technology, industry and market forecasts.    


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