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This is going to deliberately be a bit vague as there are a lot of particular situations to which this general question applies and this isn't really about any given technology but the human approach to technology in general.

Humans seem to push for better and better technological artifacts, the development of computing power in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century comes to mind, but there is a point where you can't improve on a particular piece of technology.

The basic example I always think of is the spoon, it's not the ideal universal utensil or there wouldn't be knives and forks but the basic design hasn't changed in living memory because a "spoon-shaped spoon" is the best spoon you can have.

So there are two questions:

  1. If presented with an apparent hard limit on a particular piece of technology, say several centuries of R&D has turned up nothing new and very little of any use on the minor tweaks front, would humans be satisfied with the version of a particular technology they have or would they still spend time, money, and possibly lives trying to push the envelop?

and

  1. Does it matter what the technology does? For example is a better medicine worth pushing on regardless while a better weapon isn't.
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    $\begingroup$ I can think of several ways to improve spoons now, consider making spoons with antimicrobial surfaces or hydrophobic undersides/edges to reduce dripping. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 29 '17 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon That second one, can it be good enough that nobody (well nobody at the funding level) sees the point in pushing? Specifically in reference to the apparent human attitude which almost feels like "different is better, because it's new" sometimes. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 29 '17 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ No mention of the Spork? .... Nevermind. Didn't see the entire answer devoted to the mighty Spork. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Aug 29 '17 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ What is the ideal "spoon-shaped spoon"? I have several styles in my utensil drawer to eat with, some larger, some smaller, some rounder, and some deeper. I have several other spoons in another drawer that I use to prepare food with, some rubber, some silicon, some metal, and some wood. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Aug 29 '17 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI Since I took the (red) pill, I've realized that there is no spoon. $\endgroup$ – Guran Aug 30 '17 at 8:00

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I'm going to say no. Humanity will never stop trying to improve pretty much anything.

Let's start with your example of the spoon, user54373's answer already covers the spork but that is not the only change or innovation in spoon technology.
This first website lists a number of creative spoon types which range from silly to quite useful. They are (almost) all recognisably spoons, but they serve a variety of uses. My favourites are the clip on spoons and the sliding measuring spoon, both which I could see being useful. The spoon that balances on the side of a pan is also good. A lot of it is gimmicky but there are still clearly people thinking about how to make a better spoon.
And this second link is about Google making a self balancing spoon for people with Parkinson's Disease. Apparently it compensates for the shaking caused by the disease to allow people to eat without spilling. So again, people are putting effort into improving something as simple as a spoon, and incorporating some quite fancy technology in there.

As for your second point, I think there probably is a difference. Improving the spoon probably isn't a high priority for many people, but things like medicines, computers and weapons are and probably will remain so for the foreseeable future. It doesn't mean we won't see innovations in spoons, just that innovations in other more pressing areas will come more frequently.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was going to write an answer mentioning the self-balancing spoon but you got there first so +1. Even if the vast majority think something's good enough, there'll always be someone who looks at it and thinks, justifiably or not, "I can do better than that." $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Aug 29 '17 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @F1Krazy You might want to use that thought as an answer that's the closest thing I've seen to someone addressing the psychology/philosophy side of the question directly. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 29 '17 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ And the crux of the matter is a matter of mathematics. There are simply too many unknown things (an infinite amount in fact), too many different problems, and new problems happening all the time. The combinations of problems, knowledge, and solutions is too numerous and varied to ever get to the point where we have perfected even close to them all. And especially over the long term, those problems and what resources we have available will change. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Aug 29 '17 at 18:35
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Upvoted, but I'm going to have to disagree with your basic premise, for a few reasons.

First, there is constant tweaking and tinkering with the basics. Even the humble spoon ... the all-powerful spork was invented in 1874. And the design we use today is quite different from those models.

Secondly, and this is the most important point ... our needs change. You might have the most awesome spoon or sword or paperclip imaginable, perfectly suited to its purpose. But our needs will change, and formerly perfect tools will no longer be sufficient.

Consider the mighty gladius. It evolved several times over the years, as Rome's foes changed, and as they got better ideas. But even after centuries of evolution, they eventually abandoned it. Why? Because they started having lots of mounted units. A gladius is a frightening weapon in the hands of a legionnaire in a shield-wall, but is kind of ... silly in a cavalry charge. ;D

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/would they still spend time, money, and possibly lives trying to push the envelop?/

Yes, in a capitalist system. If I want you to buy my spoon instead of that sold by a competitor, I must somehow distinguish what I make and sell such that it has a competitive edge. If you shop on line you will find an astounding variety of spoons. The below is only one page of what Pottery Barn offers.

enter image description here

Just as the basic beetle body plan is retained for the myriad of beetles with details tweaked over evolutionary time, place and circumstance will favor minor tweaks on the basic spoon plan which improve fitness (saleability) for a given time and place. Fashion and styles are part of what it is to be human and will drift and change with place, time and generations. Especially if there is a profit motive that they do.

I will tell you from experience: the impatient and practical minded human may note (but hopefully not out loud) that there is no fundamental difference between any these spoons and any one will perform its function equally well. This is true. Then how to choose? Allow some person of your acquaintance (and possibly in your life) who has more appreciation for these differences to make the choice, and then be enthusiastically supportive of it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I may have to disagree with you... "there is no fundamental difference between any these spoons and any one will perform its function equally well. This is true" The subtle differences may become important depending on the details of your cuisine and your other equipment. Specifically: I loathe round-handled spoons. Why? Because they don't fit into the slots of the silverware holder in my dishwasher! ;D Flat-handled spoons are far superior for my needs. Consider also knives... perhaps I eat only tofu and soft foods; steak knives become a case of ridiculous overkill. $\endgroup$ – akaioi Aug 29 '17 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ @user54373 - you are clearly one of the aforementioned persons who has more appreciation for the differences. $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 29 '17 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like trying to connect the statement OP made to your opinion that capitalism causes this is very far-fetched and is a strawman for the actual question of OP. While I feel capitalism sure has caused a part of this, it is also human nature and other things as noted in the other answers. You note this too in your answer, but then again directly connect it to capitalism again. Sentences like "...may note (but hopefully not out loud) that there is no ... difference between any these spoons and any one will perform ...equally well. This is true." show the political color of your answer. $\endgroup$ – Zimano Aug 30 '17 at 9:25
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I do not fully understand what you mean by "a piece of technology". Technology is the knowledge of how to make things; this knowledge changes all the time as people learn more about nature, discover new processes, are confronted with changing conditions, or simply forget old processes. The things in themselves are not "technology"; it is perfectly possible to have an object and to have little idea of how it was made.

Let's look at an example: the famous Portland vase, made somewhere in the Roman empire sometime during the 1st century of the common era, or maybe during the second half of the 1st century before the common era, we don't know for sure.

The Portland vase

[Side B of the Portland Vase. Cameo-glass, probably made in Italy ca. 5-25 AD. Picture by Jastrow, available on Wikipedia under the CC-BY-2.5 license.]

It's a cameo glass vase, decorated with beautiful scenes; the picture shows Ariadne moping on Naxos after being dumped by Theseus. The thing is, we have the vase but we don't know how it was made. We have various hypotheses, of course; I'm partial to Rosemarie Lierke's hypothesis that is was made by hot forming, that is, by pressing a hot dark glass blank into a form coated on the inside with white glass powder; but other scholars and artisans have different ideas.

This applies in all domains. The Romans used fabrics, and hammers, and nails, and earrings, and ink and so on quite similar to those we use today; but the technology to make them has changed quite a lot during the last two millenia. The question gives the example of a spoon; the technology to make spoons has changed quite a lot during the last few centuries, and the materials have changed too, from wood to pewter to stainless steel to plastic to laminates. The Platonic form of a spoon transcends time; but the process of making actual physical spoons, the technology, has changed and will change.

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We will never stop tweaking things.

Individual scientists often get fascinated by some problem and are then happy to spend a few decades figuring out exactly how it works if they can secure funding, and seem to be willing to spend significant portions of their time securing the funding to pursue their chosen problem.

It should be remembered that there have been people working tirelessly on perpetual motion machines for centuries. Every farmer and engineer has some hobby thing half built in a garage with 'improvements' of their own invention. Every family has someone who takes things apart.

Enough might be enough for almost everyone, but allowed even a modicum of freedom there will be someone who thinks a toaster ought to be more like a mouse trap and will come up with something new.

“The good Lord lets us grow old for a reason: To gain the wisdom to find fault with everything He’s made!” – Abraham Simpson

Anything you can criticize someone could make differently, and if you have money they will.

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As an example of a "hard limit", I'll cite Astrology as having experienced its hard limit long ago. And yet there are people revising and inventing new takes on the "basic technology" all the time. Need I say more?

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    $\begingroup$ As seemingly weird and short as this answer is it's surprisingly useful. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 29 '17 at 18:29
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The answer to this cannot be considered without also considering what else people could be doing besides advancing technology. In economics terms, this is the "opportunity cost" for developing the new technology. If I'm busy tinkering with a new toy, it means I'm not spending that time with my family, or cleaning the house.

If we apply Rational Actor Theory to the problem, we assume that everyone is working towards some sort of goal. If developing a technology moves us towards that goal more than not developing it, then we'll spend our time developing. This also means that technologies compete. The buggy whip, and processes for making them, are virtually unchanged since the days of Ford's Model-T car, which rendered the horse and buggy obsolete.

To this end, we may see different technologies eclipse each other, but we see technology progress. This can continue until one day, developing technology is not the best way to further our goals. There is no proof that the march of technology is endless. In fact, it makes some sense that it will reach plateaus where it is simply not the best way to solve life's problems. Remember that technological development never solves any of life's real problems. What it does is give us tools to solve those problems better. At some point, the benefits of technology simply cease to outweigh the benefits of getting our hands dirty and actually solving the problems with the technology we have.

Or we could have the attitude of always building the tools to solve the problems later. This has the aire of martengale betting, always getting into position to make your win. The results are equally disastrous. In business, there's entire schools of thought as to how to properly stop investing in tools and instead focus on making profit. A civilization that never stops the relentless assault on the future eventually makes a mistake and falls.

Of course, we could be irrational too. If you dismiss Rational Actor Theory, we can consider the possibility that individuals will always dream of reaching the stars, even if all the cold, hard, rational statistics say they can't. Someone's always going to try tinkering with something.

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  • $\begingroup$ I see Rational Actor Theory, and I see discussion on tinkering with a new toy, and I'm wondering... Just what are we all doing here on Worldbuilding in the first place? :-) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Aug 29 '17 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling I didn't include it in the answer, but there's also a curious point where the development of a thing becomes indistinguishable from the use of it. It's hard to reach that point with technology, though. It's something one sees more often in the artists, and it's challenging to be an artist whose medium is technology. Worlds are much more amenable! =) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Aug 29 '17 at 19:42
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  1. The majority might be satisfied by a particular version of a particular technology, but not everyone will be. Some people will be driven by perversity or ambition or challenge to either improve any technology generally, or specifically for some niche requirement.

Taking the example of the spoon: why should it not be deeper, or shallower. If spoons are usually taken into the mouth from one side, why should they be symmetrical? Why not have left-handed and right-handed spoons? What about spoons for moustaches, or for eating soup in sandstorms, or zero-gravity?

The problems tackled may not be sensible, the solutions may not be effective, but someone will tackle them and, perhaps with some clever marketing, may end up convincing people that the idea has merit - or not. It doesn't really matter, because someone will try - even if they end up re-inventing someone else's long discarded 'new idea'.

  1. It doesn't matter at all. In the example, though, you ask a slightly different question: are some technologies more important than others? The answer is 'yes', but it depends very much upon circumstance whether what you need is better medicine, or a better weapon, or a better spoon which can detect contaminated food (for example).
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Innovation follows some form of environmental pressure. Spoons haven't changed much because the pressure went away or was dealt with. The difficulties around scooping and eating liquids were solved and no further pressures existed to be improved upon. New pressures then stress further innovation. Following the spoon bit, as the human race advanced/advances into the space age, a new issue arises: liquids in space. Humans looked at spoons, which long had solved the problems of eating liquids, and realized they weren't going to perform under the new criteria. New environmental pressures were there that demanded attention and innovation. I imagine an astronaut's grandma was upset that she couldn't send her tupperware of soup into zero-g with her favorite grandchild. "How about I load it into a toothpaste tube or a caprisun pouch?" Thanks Grandma!

Just like that the spoon gets blacklisted from spaceflight.

Related more to thoroughly researched areas, innovation comes in whatever way can reduce the pressure. For example, people looking at solar power might see a tech limit due to the actual amount of energy reaching them. Our solar power limit is estimated somewhere above 120 Watts/sq. meter. In your question's context, that is the hard limit, even after centuries of research. "Good Enough" would be found by the pressures forcing the change and what changes could be made to reduce the pressure. Lets say there is a 90% efficient solar panel. Is the earth in desperate need of 100% solar energy extraction? Would (for the sake of this example) years and trillions of dollars in research be needed? or would it be easier/cheaper to build solar collectors in space? Is it Dyson Sphere time? What about other energy sources? What about more efficient appliances? What about killing off a huge chuck of the population to reduce demand? Scary, but it all depends.

In this case, the pressure includes energy need, time, effort, expense, morals, ethics, etc. and the responses are not limited to more work on the current research they are trying. Humans like to do things at the cheapest 'cost' to them - We're lazy. We will try to find a different solution to reduce the pressure. I'm not saying solar collectors in space would be easy, but it would be just one way to reduce the energy need pressure, and it would definitely be prioritized as soon as the research was deemed fruitless and 'expensive'. Also, lets not kill off people.

The same holds for your second point. The innovation is driven by pressures. Is the planet under a threat of advanced alien war? You can bet we'll prioritize weapons tech over cold sore treatments. Has globalization and communication reduced nuclear tensions? We'll probably kick start tons of medical funding. while retiring weapons projects. Do astronauts love eating soups and cereals with spoons? We'll need some artificial gravity on board ASAP!

The scary side I see to this innovation process is a world where maybe we have tried nearly everything. In that case I imagine the solutions would be a little nightmarish. Maybe nothing has yet solved a global energy/food crisis and the darker answers I mentioned might be the only 'good' or affordable solutions. Yikes.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 I was reading down the answers waiting for one like this. I was going to say it's an arms race, and as long as there's an advantage in better tech, then that tech will develop. Your explanation with "pressures" is excellent, and as an abstract covers my arms race, and the economic arguments & examples given in other answers. @ryanr yours is the correct answer, in my not so humble opinion :) $\endgroup$ – Binary Worrier Aug 30 '17 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ Also (and I'm illustrating how correct your answer is here) Spoons have changed due to different "pressures", tiny spoons are made for use with cappuccino cups, reinforced "spoons" which are ice-cream scoops, ladles for serving soup, soup spoons, all developed due to the pressing need for a different type of spoon. $\endgroup$ – Binary Worrier Aug 30 '17 at 9:46
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Let us give a different twist to the answer; I'm unsure if this is what you really want to know, but...

Spoon is not really a good example because technology to make it is rather basic and varied in the centuries, while the shape remained quite constant.

However, if you look to other technologies you see a path often followed:

  • infancy with a rather crude prototype.
  • youth adds enhancements that usually make the thing perform better, but are more complex.
  • maturity when all parts are essential to good working.
  • perfection when enhancement is not anymore possible without a substantial change in design.

One of such "perfect" product is said to be the Springfield Model 52 rifle.

Similar "perfection" can be found in (not so) modern fractional distillation towers.

It is interesting to note (but this is probably irrelevant here) the original meaning of "perfect" was to indicate an action that is completely in the past, so it is completed and cannot be changed anymore. A "perfect" thing is, by translation, a thing that cannot be changed anymore without making it something different.

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Is consumer culture an aspect of this question? Many choose "good enough" as a way to keep stuff out of landfills. Many cannot afford the latest technology even when it comes to medicine.

I would hope that as technology improves in general there will be ways to get those improvements to specific individuals. Yes the average spoon serves many until you need a smaller than average size or a super long handle. There are spoons with gyroscopes that control for tremor so that Parkinson's patients can eat without spilling.

Philosophically, I think many people will be left with needs both minor and major as technology advances. A minor tweak can mean a big difference for those outside the bell curve.

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1. People will always continue the push the envelope.

We have evolved over millenia within an ever changing environment. This has conditioned our instincts to a mode of constant reactive response to the changing environment, or we tend to die out. This behavior expresses itself in a superb way when talking about finding another bigger, smaller, faster, prettier, more efficient, more productive, more (insert appropriate adjective here) way to do or create technology and it's products.

As described in other answers, the environment may even change so much so that the technology becomes obsolete. Even in these cases, though, no idea is truly safe from revival and renewed tinkering: sometimes in the process of improving on a technology, we can find ourselves suddenly using a tool completely over-advanced for the job at hand, and going back to square one is necessary. It doesn't make much sense to use the Hubble telescope to identify that unusual bird that showed up in your backyard--might want to just grab a pair of binoculars. This will inevitably begin the process all over again though, with new and different viewpoints being applied to the "old" technology.

2. No, it doesn't matter what the technology is for.

It's just going to be more likely to be evident in certain areas based on the level of technological advancement present. Individuals in a society where basic needs are not being met will focus the creative response to their changing environments on the things that will help them meet their basic needs (the building supplies, food, and defense). Those in a society where they are striving to meet higher levels of human needs will focus on more and more varying technological advances (eventually the pinwheels and touchscreens like mentioned). This evolved drive to create and innovate in some cases will even overpower an individual's basic needs.... hence the concept of starving artists.

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  1. Yes, it matters what the technology does. Anything that helps us survive and thrive (physically, economically) we are more motivated to improve upon.

We may try to improve upon pinwheels, for example, but probably only if we are in the business of selling pinwheels. It isn't the technology that we want to improve, it is sales.

There are more reasons to improve building materials, weapons, or medicines than pinwheels, because the former items are directly relevant to survival.

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this is an important question with no real answer that anyone alive today can give, the problem is that there is just so much stuff that technology could help us with that we don't even consider because it COULDN'T occur to us, the thing is all the answer people are giving you are great and should be taken into account but my guess is that your doing a worldbuilding project so just go as far as YOU can see technology advancing in the future, in this scenario, everyone's wrong.

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Use standards are usually the big thing that keep things from having updates or large reformations. The spoon is recognizable standard people know what it is and how to use it, no one will think you're weird if you put it out etc. A spork in the Whitehouse would be out of place by societal standards.

Also seen in cars with their controls, better things exist from the pedals/wheel and we know it, but don't change it because everyone will complain.

See audio jack port leaving phones for the current epidemic: "why would you take away my headphone jack" because it's huge and can be done with a better form factor.

Essentially a painful transition stops innovation.

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem with your answer is that most of these things are not better, just different. How's a spork better than a spoon? And what exactly is better than current auto controls? Sometimes they're worse, like replacing audio jacks with wireless connectors that use more power & provide lower audio quality - not to mention the cost of purchasing new accessories. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 30 '17 at 4:32
  • $\begingroup$ I cannot respect a comment where the commenter cannot recognize that a spork is superior to a spoon. $\endgroup$ – user8327311 Aug 30 '17 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ That sounds like a personal problem to me :-) Symptomatic of a widespread condition called inventoritis, in which the inventor of some new improved gee-whiz device becomes unable to recognize that a large part of the public doesn't think it's an improvement... $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 31 '17 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ Are you trying to use the innovation gate keeping method that I'm describing in my post to gate keep my post? Yeah the public doesn't think it's an improvement that's when innovation becomes good enough, The self attested improved device is not recognized to the public as an improved device. $\endgroup$ – user8327311 Sep 15 '17 at 22:36

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