We’ve been discussing speed quite a bit lately, and this story about the end of Concorde illustrates a point I’ve been making for some time. On most of the obvious measures, technological progress in transport stopped sometime in the late 1960s and, at the frontiers, we are now seeing retrogression.
In 1970, we had regular visits to the moon, and supersonic passenger flight via Concorde was on the way. Now we have neither. Even the space shuttle, designed as a low-cost “space truck” to replace the expensive moon program, is now headed for oblivion, with no obvious replacement.
At a more prosaic level, the 747 jumbo jet, introduced in the late 1960s, is still the workhorse of passenger air transport. Boeing’s attempts at producing a new generation of passenger planes have failed, and the likely replacement for the jumbo jet is the Airbus A380 – essentially just a double-decker jumbo. In all probability, this will be the standard for the next thirty or even fifty years. Of course we don’t have flying cars, or even personal helicopters, as most projections from 50 years ago supposed.
On the ground, cars are safer and more comfortable than they used to be, but the rate of innovation has slowed substantially, and as we’ve discussed, there’s been no increase in the average speed at which we travel – if anything the opposite. Here, for illustration are specs for the 1962 Holden EJ released just over 40 years ago. There are some obvious differences from the cars of today, but they are pretty minor. Go back another 40 years and you’re looking at this. Forty years more and even the bicycle is still is in embryo (the first modern one was made in 1885, predating the first Daimler and Benz cars by four years)
There are a couple of points to make here. The first is that, outside the areas of information and communications, technological progress has generally slowed. All the easy stuff (penicillin, jet aircraft, skyscrapers) had been done by the late 1960s. Only in IT and telecom does anything like Moore’s Law work in our favour.
The second is that while the relationship between transport and communications is complex, in the long run they are substitutes. We don’t need to send humans into outer space to tell us what’s there, because we can send cameras and telescopes and download the results. We don’t need to fly from London to New York in five hours when we can make a phone call for a few cents a minute.
Interestingly, this logic hasn’t prevented some industries, notably financial services, from clustering ever more closely in a handful of ‘global cities”. As I’ll argue in a later post, this says more about the dominance of crony capitalism in the financial sector than about the technological requirements of doing business.