June 12, 2007

Why nothing really happens most of the time

There was a recent posting on the IEEE spectrum blog about revolutionary nanotechnology: Wet or Dry

I respond to that blog in the comment sections of that article. It boils down to if you do not research an issue then you can repeat lies, slander and bait and switch marketing. It takes work to not accept a watered down and bait and switched future.

Many futurists often talk about the accelerating technology and change.

But there are strong forces that oppose change and support the status quo.

1. Government and existing industry will often support ideas and plans that do not deliver real change and do not really try to solve problems. Things like 200 billion for Highway funding and transportation infrastructure which mostly gets diverted to other non-highway or transportation projects or just to support bureaucracy which is not held to a standard of results.

2. The public could get its awareness raised about and issue and really want a solution. Things like air pollution, climate change or the development of a new technology. Breaking through to raise awareness on complex issues is tough. Molecular nanotechnology still has lingering problems getting fully understood.

3. They could get denials that it is a problem or that the new technology is not possible. They can get bait and switched into something that is called a solution to the problem but will not do anything like what it is labelled. Climate change and molecular nanotechnology are mostly stuck in this phase.

4. They could get put off with studies of the problem and work to investigate but do nothing about the issue.

5. They could get delivered an expensive program which is flashy and complicated but has no follow up and does not have the scope to do anything like the original visions. Then after decades of this the original vision is declared impossible or needing many decades more for progress. This is the situation with Space colonization and space development after Apollo, Space shuttle and the international space station. People in the programs can be heroic and well intentioned but the programs themselves could only be glorified and dangerous short term camping trips.

6. The journalists covering technology may also not understand the overall technical issues and may not be able to evaluate the real ability to achieve progress with a particular program. Mainstream journalists often have little science, engineering and business background and are unable to analyze what is happening with a proposed program or business "solution". Even journalists for technology and engineering magazines may not really dig into the details. They will have a particular opinion and agenda and look for ways to advance it.

Sharon Weinberger of Wired magazines Danger Room blog, has clear biases. She wrote a book Imaginary Weapons and is always looking to find repeated examples of that thesis (wasted government funding of technology which proved unsuccessful). She will criticize research and papers on technology like that developed in Nasa Institute for Advanced Concepts but will not bother to read them. Here is an example of that where she criticizes some research without understanding or reading anymore than the title She asks for an expert to help her who then tells her about a proposal with similarities.

7. Until a particular class of research and change starts to become profitable at every step (like the internet and mobile phones) then there can be a lot of noise and misinformation and other work passed off with a new label but very little real work and very little real change. Even then there can be entrenched companies and forces that are trying to limit change and defend an existing business. Cable and phone companies blocking or slowing change on communication technologies. Music and content companies that extend copywrite for 75+ years and try to block innovation in content distribution with lawsuits and other tactics.

8. Sometimes people can be convinced that a particular problem is mostly solved, when only the most obvious aspects have been achieved. This is and was the case with air pollution. When the smog was obscuring the skies of all major cities in the west (and not just the lesser amount that LA still has) and you would have 12,000 dropping dead from events like the London Fog of 1952 people got active and solved 80% of the most visible pollution. But economic activity has increased the level of unseen pollution and particulates. Millions die each year but it is mostly not keeling over in the streets but more quietly in hospitals or in less developed countries. Plus there is the numbing effect of something horrible happening year after year. Like someone who was always being beaten by a spouse or parent. The victim got used to it.

These roadblocks to real change and solutions would be less of an issue if they were not preventing the saving of millions dieing from air pollution or from the diseases of old age. Problems that we can work on real solutions if we can push through all of the distractions, bait and switches and lies.