Thursday, August 25, 2011
The Peter Principle in Technology
It seems to me that technological progress results in the use of new technology that isn't quite adequate. I can remember a remark a technician made to me years ago about telephones. The rotary dial telephone was invented ages ago - probably not long after I was born. The technician was in the process of changing one of the telephones in my house, replacing a rotary dial instrument with a push-button phone. He remarked that the rotary dial phone had been in use for such a long time that it had been perfected and very rarely malfunctioned. The new, at the time, push button phones were not nearly as dependable, but they were rapidly replacing the older rotary dial instruments.
I've thought of many other examples. The railroad was invented as an improvement on wagons pulled by horses or canal barges towed by horses. It provided more rapid transportation of heavy loads. However, early railroads had some important drawbacks. It took many decades of trying and failing to develop a reliable signal system to keep two trains from colliding. It also took decades to increase the speed from about 20 miles per hour to 100. Finally the system was just about perfected. Then came the bus. Buses could go places trains couldn't. They could offer lower cost transportation. However, they were slower and less comfortable for human passengers. Nonetheless, by about 1940 passenger rail service was declining as more and more people chose either to ride buses or to buy and drive their own cars. Clearly, these newer forms of transportation were in many respects inferior to rail travel. A few decades later, cars were more comfortable and safer, as were buses. But, before these new means of transportation had a chance to become perfected, the airplane appeared. Now we travel long distances by air. For shorter distances we drive our cars, ride buses, or use what's left of the passenger rail system.
I could extend this essay for many feet by showing other examples in which we are using new, developing technology that doesn't work as well as older technology that we've abandoned. It's like the Peter Principle in employment. In many cases we're doing things not as well as we could have with older technology.