Good Years for Technology

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov 2013

Malcolm Gladwell, in his popular book "Outliers", argues that one of the determining factors in future success is the year you were born.  In the field of technology he reasons that the perfect year to have been born was 1955, so that at the start of the computer revolution -- which he assigns to be January 1975 -- you would have been just the right age to take advantage of the new technology.  If you had been born later than 1955, you would still have been in school when everyone else was capitalizing on the new technology.  But if you had been born earlier than 1955, you would probably already have had a comfortable job at a place like IBM, and not have been inclined to strike out on your own with the new technology.

In support of this assertion he cites birthdates for famous technologists.  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy Bechtolsheim, Eric Schmidt, and Vinod Khosla were born in 1955, while Bill Joy, Paul Allen, Scott McNealy, and Steve Ballmer were all born only a year earlier or later.  This is an impressive list, but there are enough counterexamples that I'm inclined to be skeptical of the argument.  Moreover, Gladwell's measure of success is the wealth achieved by the individual, whereas we have had many justly famous engineers who through discovery or invention have significantly changed the world without necessarily becoming rich.
Nevertheless, I have often contemplated the idea that there are good times to enter the engineering profession and not so good times to begin a career.  If we ignore the changing economic climate and look strictly at technology, I think there have been times when the technology has been fertile and ready for harvest, and other times when a field has become overworked and lies relatively fallow, when a lot of hard work has been required for ever-diminishing returns.

I sometimes think of this in terms of cosmology.  The universe is expanding at a rate known as Hubble's constant, whereas in technology we have an expansion given by Moore's Law.  But in cosmology there is believed to have been an inflationary period very soon after the big bang when space itself expanded at a tremendous rate.  I like the idea of technology undergoing a similar rapid expansion at a time like 1975 when the very space in which we could work expanded almost explosively.

In cosmology there are competing forces for expansion and contraction.  Gravity pulls toward contraction, while it is believed that space uniformly contains a dark energy that propels expansion.  There are corresponding forces in technology.  Contraction happens as we push against the physical limits of a technology, while the rate of expansion is augmented by the ever increasing numbers of engineers worldwide.
Unlike the inflation in cosmology, however, there have been a number of inflationary periods in technology.  Certainly the computer revolution was one such period, but there have been others -- the transistor, integrated circuit, Internet, optics, and wireless, for example.  Each revolution expanded greatly our working space.  So perhaps a better analogy would be the hypothesis in evolutionary theory of a punctuated equilibrium, where periods of stasis are alternated with periods of sudden growth.

The question uppermost in my mind is whether the current year is a good year for technology or a not-so-good year.  Frankly, I have no idea, because we only seem to know these things in retrospect.  When some of us older engineers get together we often reminisce about having enjoyed the "golden years."  But the very next thought I have is that we didn't know at the time how good we had it.
For some years after the transistor had been invented, the schools still taught vacuum tubes.  Although the integrated circuit had been invented by Kilby in 1962, none of the IEEE Fellows writing about the future in the Proceeding of the IEEE in 1965 thought it worthy of mention.  The Internet snuck up on us even as we were using it.  And so forth.  Each time the walls around us had moved outwards and yet we still felt confined to the smaller space to which we had become accustomed.

So perhaps in twenty years some columnist for Spectrum will write about what a good year it was in 2013.
But maybe not.