Archive for March 7th, 2012


does technology make great ideas?

The following is the first post by guest blogger Alan Brown, associate editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine. Look for his posts weekly.

Alan Brown

My guess is that most of us have heard Victor Hugo’s famous quote, “There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” But doesn’t technology set the stage for many of those ideas?

I started speculating about this last week when I attended the Science Writers in New York annual party. At one point, I found myself talking to another writer about what makes people happy.

“If a woman wants a happy marriage,” she said, “she should marry a man who
will take her name.”

That was a challenging statement, and soon led to a discussion about how much the women’s movement really changed society. In her view, it hasn’t been that much. From my perspective (which probably included about 15 or 20 years of additional personal experience), quite a bit.

Afterwards, I started musing about why some changes take so long to take hold, while others percolate through society so quickly. What really struck me was how many were technological in nature.

While some will argue that personal computers changed the world, I think the real game-changer was the Internet. From America Online to Google and now Facebook and YouTube, it altered how we communicate, learn, shop, and interact with one another.

The Internet put the world on a 24/7 cycle. It nearly wiped out the music industry and changed how we learn about new products and new ideas. As Thomas Friedman has pointed out, it leveled the playing field. Today, anyone anywhere with an Internet connection, a thirst for knowledge, a good idea, or an innovative product can be part of the global marketplace.

Smartphones, which made the Internet portable, ushered in the third revolution of my lifetime. It is easy to argue that putting the Internet in our pocket is merely an extension of what has come before. But I think it changes how we do things in fundamental ways, whether it is learn the news, keep in touch with friends, read a book, watch a movie, or overthrow a dictatorial regime in the Middle East. This is a revolution that is only a few years old, yet I see profound changes in how people interact with one another, and in their expectations about privacy, friendship, and the ability to learn what they need to know (from train schedules to restaurant ratings to the score of your home team’s basketball
game) in an instant.

Before my lifetime, there were other massive changes. I would put the automobile first, followed by mass media (radio/TV/television) and airplanes.
I mentioned some of this to a fellow editor, and she suggested I add sewing machines to my list. I can see why. They made the ready-to-wear industry possible and freed women from the drudgery of making their own clothing. This gave them time to do others things, including moving into the public sphere in ways that would have been impossible 150 years ago.

So now I’m curious: Do you buy my thesis? I know that I have only sketched out my thoughts, but I believe technology sets the scene for Hugo’s powerful ideas.

Do you agree with my technology choices?

Have others you would add to the list?

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

March 2012

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