Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Technology changes Vocabulary and Productivity

A funny thing happened while I was reading the the article, “Amazon unveils cargo plane as it expands delivery network” by Phuong Le in the Sat Aug 6 2016 PR. In the last paragraph of the article is a quote from Dave Clark, Amazon’s Senior VP for worldwide operations,“Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens in the future”. It occurred to me that the phrase “stay tuned” has already become archaic in that it refers to a nondigital technology (tube radio) which had a tuner knob the user could control to find the “station” or broadcast frequency desired.

This struck me as serendipitous because just the previous day, my grandson Tommy had used the phrase, “Hang up the phone” to me referring to a cell phone. I (unpompously as possible) pointed out to him that “hang up” was an outdated phrase referring to olden times (early 20th century”) when phones looked like this:

You can see that it has a microphone on top , a dial at the bottom and a cradle on the side with which you can place the speaker to “hang up the phone” and end the conversation. I predicted that in a few years people will be saying, “Swipe off the phone” instead. To which he astutely replied, “Or ‘hang up’ will just become another phrase that we use unaware of its original meaning --- like “dialing” the number.

So I wondered how many other words of phrase have become archaic due to technological change and by searching on “outdated expressions” you can find a plethora of other examples; e.g.


Speaking of change, the Aug 11 PBS Newshour the segment, “End of Growth”, examines technological change from two different viewpoints. Economics reporter Paul Solmon asks two economists, Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson, for their reasons for and against the prediction that the US economy is in for a long patch of slow growth. Gordon shows data that the period between 1870 and 1970 was an era of unprecedented growth and productivity fueled by such technology as the radio, the electric light, indoor plumbing, air conditioning/heating, the telephone, radio and TV, the airplane,the internal combustion engine, and last but not least, the refrigerator( which, besides convenience, kept food from spoiling and thus improved the nation’s health).

Brynjolfsson agrees pointing out that a multitude of tasks previously performed by human muscle or horsepower were replaced by machines in that century which not only raised productivity but lessened the burden and freed up time for most people. But he disagrees with Gordon’s thesis that our best days are over. He claims that we are in a “second machine age” where they now raise our productivity by supplementing our brain power using artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. Gordon parries with the observation that this new utopia visualized by Brynjolfsson is not yet factual --- it is merely a hope.

Gordon rhapsodizes about the tremendous investment in infrastructure symbolized by the construction of the Golden Gate bridge and similar projects that led this country into a prosperity never before reached. . Further, his research indicates that during that 100 year span the US was growing three times faster than in the last 40 years. Brynjolfsson responds that while that may be so, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet and that the greatest failure of the human mind is in comprehending exponential growth (the bigger it gets, the faster it grows) because we tend to think linearly. Gordon responds that computers have been riding this wave of exponential growth for the last 50 years but it has not yet shown up in productivity. And so on and so forth.

Solmon ends the piece with the observation that no matter whose viewpoint will turn out to be correct we are certainly currently in a period of strong economic headwinds: problems in education, an aging population, a huge national debt, and growing inequality.

I believe that if anything can lift us up out of this “great recession’, it will be undergirded by technology. It is not surprising to me that technology not only changes society’s productivity but also its vocabulary.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog