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Chart of the Day: New Technology Spreading Faster

This excellent chart from Visual Economics (h/t Derek Thompson) reinforces one of the core themes we’ve been following at Via Meadia: the rapid expansion of new technology over time. The graph tracks the spread of the most important new technologies of the 20th century, including cars, refrigerators, electricity and computers.

Click to enlarge:

The chart highlights one of the most most important, and largely unheralded, changes in American society. Not only are new technologies being created faster than ever before; they are also becoming accessible to the broader population much more rapidly than at earlier points in history. The telephone was invented in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that a majority of American homes had one. By contrast, the internet was invented in its current form in the early 1990s and was in use in a majority of American homes a mere decade later.

The development of new technologies is accelerating even as the lag time between development and adoption is falling, magnifying their impact on society. Rather than spending years as expensive toys of the rich, today’s cutting edge technology is discovered simultaneously by rich and poor alike.

There are more new products than ever before and their use is spreading faster than ever before.

The world is on fire, and there is no end in view.

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  • Luke Lea

    OTH modern railroads were first being built in England around 1800 but were being built all over the world by 1830.

  • ViaMediaReeda

    And, the slope of the adoption curves for information technologies is much steeper than for “convenience” technologies, even though the marginal savings the cost of information technologies in disposable income is higher (taking into account up-front and ongoing subscriptions), and time/efficiency savings for the household user from household goods is higher than information tech. It would be interesting to see these graphs compared to per capita disposable income and life expectancy.

  • The Reticulator

    Looks to me like the slope of those adoption curves are highly correlated with the cost of the technologies. Maybe more so than with time.

  • Eric Gisin

    What does “stove” mean? A century ago it would have been coal or wood. Very few homes had electric service of 30A suitable for simple stoves.

  • J R Yankovic

    “The world is on fire, and there is no end in view.”

    Amen. There can be no question that change is coming, and that we must adapt. Rather, it’s the folks whose constant harangue in every age is: “DON’T question; ONLY adapt” who worry me. And, to be honest, more than a little frighten me. I’d like to believe – and mostly am reassured – that the good people at Via Meadia are not among them. But sometimes I wonder.

    My point is that, in every era featuring massive waves of change (gee – almost sounds like lyrics for a new national anthem), there are also human perceptions of that change. And every MASS perception of massive change carries with it political – and even ideological – implications and consequences: Think tanks, movements, parties, etc. Not all of whose enthusiasms can be foreseen, or reined in easily once they start. My concern above all is with unCRITICAL enthusiasm (or even uncritical resignation), and in particular that it will cause the eager-to-launch ship to fail to budget for enough lifeboats. Or that it may have already squashed cautionary reminders to that effect. After all, even innovators (and in particular successful ones – not to mention their cheerleaders) have been sometimes known to become authoritarian, bullying, and impatient with doubt or dissent. Good grief, even corporate and not-for-profit MANAGEMENTS have appeared to manifest these failings on rare occasions. But my chief question is, if otherwise critical INTELLECTUALS can’t be alive to the dangers of an overconfidently underprepared voyage, who can?

    I’m reminded of those otherwise reasonable and moderate public thinkers in Europe, from the mid-1920s onwards to the War, whose regular theme of “POLITICAL CHANGE IS COMING – ADAPT” was often construed as a qualified apology for fascism. And not always misconstrued. It’s not that these thinkers LIKED fascism; indeed, I’m convinced many of them especially detested its more atavistic features. But they could easily give the appearance of being – and so easily embolden others to become – resigned to fascism and its more imitative competitors, precisely because together they looked like the one political tendency roughly commensurate with a trend that then seemed irreversible: namely, the overwhelming mechanization not only of economic but of artistic and cultural life. Those who doubted that democracy could survive (interesting how little they seemed to doubt the viability of democracy’s alternatives) asked many questions. But one of their most pressing was how far a regard for what Orwell called basic human decency could coexist with the overriding need for advanced human efficiency. Given that, so far as I can tell, our own enthusiasm for advanced human efficiency has been unabated these 20 years – besides being stronger than I can remember in my lifetime – it occurs to me we may want to start asking ourselves an additional set of questions about OUR future, and its dangers.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Let me once again self identify as a contrarian by observing that while most of these technologies are electronic, the automobile is also included. Excluded is what I would consider two fundamental technologies, indoor plumbing and central heating. As a boomer suburbanite, I was shocked in 1960 by pictures in LIFE of folks in the Appalachians without running water or furnaces. It was…inconceivable to me. But to my father, from Appalachia himself, that was the base line. Sort of like the way our eol treatment of dogs has evolved.

    Note also the rapid adoption of radio in the 20’s. Its ascent was constrained only by the reach of electricity. Had rural electrification taken place in the 20’s, it would have had an adoption rate as fast or faster than the digital technologies. And it was the only one of the early technologies that was primarily entertainment focused.

    Finally, I would observe that while whole corporations and industries were necessary to bring these products to the public, their arrival depended on a few individuals we should properly regard as heroes for the benefit they have brought to humanity: Bell, Edison, Ford, DeForest, and Shockley. While not a technologist per se, Sarnoff should be somewhere on the list. Only missing is Borlaug, the greatest of them all. It was a great century. If you managed not to get killed by one government or another.

  • Adam Lang

    How were there more households with radios than electricity in the 1940s? Did a significant amount of households use radios with batteries when they didn’t have electricity?

  • Jim.

    @Mrs. Davis – If US Households were still mostly family farms, Borlaug would definitely be on there. On the other hand, his contributions squeezed a lot of people out of agriculture.

    On the other hand, those are still important “adoptions” to track. I wonder what an adoption graph of agricultural inventions from the cotton gin to the combine harvester would look like? American adoption rates for those were fairly rapid as well. Perhaps comparable to today.

    Also, I’d put more goods on there: running water, toilet, vacuum cleaner, attic / basement insulation, water heaters, high-speed internet access, window / vent screens, etc… a judicious selection could clutter / declutter various portions of the graph and lead to rather different conclusions.

    Also note: If the slopes are actually getting steeper with any kind of reliability, there should be at least two more technologies on that graph invented since 1990, identifiable because their adoption rate would have hit 50% by now.

    @The Reticulator: I suspect we’re seeing spikes of adoption nowadays due to (unsustainably) loose consumer credit, and yes, the fact that the prices for more recent devices are a smaller part of a household’s income.

  • Robert

    @#&: Yes, battery-powered models did exist. And crystal radios — I built one as a kid in the 1950s as a science project — require no line current.

  • Bruno Behrend

    Can the big brains that read this blog develop an app that improves character and morals?

    Would it see a rapid uptake?

    That would pretty much solve a bunch of problems.

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