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Stages of Tech Grief: How New Technologies Emerge

[Disclaimer: the content below is not an original thought. Rather, an extension of Elting E. Morison’s work in Men, Machines, and Modern Times.]

Since the beginning of mankind, new and emergent technologies have disrupted old ones.

Subsistence farming replaced hunting/gathering food, cars replaced horses, electricity replaced candles and lamps, personal computers replaced mainframes, and so on.

But throughout history, humans have never adopted and adapted to these new technologies as soon as they were introduced into society. Despite the obvious superiority to its predecessor, it takes a considerable amount of time - usually decades - before the new technology is embedded in society. Why is that?

I find myself occasionally thinking about this. Recently I came across the book Men, Machines, and Modern Times, which provided a satisfactory answer to my question.

In this piece, I’ll explore why and how new technologies are almost always greeted with hostility. In doing so, I’ll use a case study described in the book about 19th-century naval warfare.

Without getting into the mechanical details of how 19th-century naval guns and canons worked, the gist of this case study is that guns back then were dreadfully inaccurate. And therefore sea warfare was inefficient.

The reason for this was that the guns were directly mounted onto the ship. Because of this, as the ship moved and swayed along with the sea, aiming at an enemy ship became cumbersome. Landing an accurate shot was practically improbable. The gunman could only raise or lower the gun’s angle and had to fire well in advance of seeing the enemy within the gun scope.

To make matters worse, the scope was mounted directly on the gun. This meant that using the scope sight was infeasible because the gun’s recoil would plunge the scope into the gunman’s eye. Ouch.

Crewmen standing atop USS Indiana forward port side 8-inch gun turret, circa the later 1890s.

Needless to say that 19th-century naval warfare was more of a painful art than it was a science. But then, a young officer by the name of Willian S. Sims showed up.

Sims redesigned the guns so that they autocorrected for the movements of the ship. If the ship swayed up as the gunman was taking aim, the canon lowered itself, and vice-versa. He also attached the scope to a sleeve around the canon rather than mounting it directly on top. This allowed the gun to recoil upon fire without moving the scope.

These two changes led to an increase in the accuracy of shots fired by 3000%.

It also paved the way for something that was considered to be mathematically impossible on naval ships back then - continuous-aim firing, which is the ability to keep the weapon aimed at the target at all times while firing multiple shots in succession.

Despite the changes introduced by Sims to the gun+scope, and its clear advantages, it took an entire decade before the US Navy implemented the new weaponry. In the book, Morrison goes on to describe the process by which Sims’ innovation was perceived by the navy back then - a process that I like to (humorously) call ‘The Stages of Tech Grief’.

Stage 1: Ignore

Sims kept a detailed record of the changes he introduced to the gun and scope. He also accumulated data on the improved accuracy as a result of these changes.

In order to get the new and improved gunnery adopted by the US Navy, he submitted his reports to the Bureau of Navigation and the Bureau of Ordnance.

Both institutions proceeded to ignore him. Not a single officer responded to his claims of having achieved continuous-aim firing.

Stage 2: Rational counterarguments

Despite his achievements being greeted with dead silence from Washington, Sims continued to write papers about the superiority of his innovations in a more strongly worded fashion. He then circulated them to others members of the US fleet.

When the rumours of Sims’ claims started spreading throughout Washington, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation was forced to take some form of action.

The Chief responded by laying out seemingly rational and logical arguments against Sims’ innovation. He said that the problem was not with the guns, but rather the officers operating them and that they required more training. He dismissed the thought of continuous-aim firing by saying that it was impossible to do so even if five men operated a single gun.

Stage 3: Namecalling

After a while, when the new gunnery proposed by Sims picked up steam and was adopted by a few US and UK warships, the rational arguments seized and the name-calling began.

The officers in charge dismissed Sims as a plain liar and a ‘crackbrained egotist’.

A frustrated Sims eventually appealed to the US President at that time - Theodore Roosevelt - to adopt his methodologies into the US Navy given its clear superiority to the prevailing weaponry.

Finally, in 1908, Sims’ innovation was implemented on all US naval warships - a full decade after it was first introduced.

New technologies uproot existing ways of society

This case study exemplifies how society perceives new and superior technologies.

At first, the powers that be ignore them. Then they make logical and rational arguments against them. Finally, once the status quo begins to collapse around them, the rational arguments turn violent.

While the Stages of Tech Grief are useful in understanding how society reacts to new technology, it does not say anything about why we react the way we do, and why there is almost always a significant time interval between the introduction and adoption of new technology.

The answer to this is that new technologies demand a radical change in power and reputation within the institutions that they seek to replace. When a new technology emerges, it threatens to displace years or even decades of power structures, order, and societal norms that have formed around the status quo.

For example, the US Navy in the 19th century was a society. It revolved around a certain set of societal norms. When a new form of artillery was introduced into this society, it threatened to change the existing hierarchies, the way officers are trained, daily routines, habits, conventions, and rituals.

Humans identify themselves with their creations. In the example of the US Navy, the officers identified themselves and formed a way of life around the prevailing weaponry. Naturally, when the new guns were introduced, they viewed it as a change in the arrangements of their society, and in the way they identified themselves.

Concluding thoughts

Although I haven’t verified it myself, I strongly suspect that a similar pattern of ignorance, rational rebuttal, and name-calling, has played out throughout human history with the introduction of new and better technologies.

I see this pattern playing out today with cryptocurrencies and AI. Both of these technologies are in the name-calling stage. Ripe for disruption.

I also strongly believe that we will continue to see this pattern play out in the future when it comes to sustainable energy (we already see the ‘rational’ arguments against nuclear energy), life extension, nanotech, space tech, and all future technologies that threaten the status quo in exchange for a better tomorrow.


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