The Discovery Void

by Maxim Blin
File under: Fake Tech09 Jan 2015 13:25 EST

Two days ago the BBC published an interesting article on a new potential breakthrough in antibiotics research.  Drug-resistant microbes may have finally met their match, they say, thanks to some academic researchers in Boston (no, not from Harvard, but from that other other university in Boston, the 'ugly school': Northeastern University.)  But what was most interesting was that the article nonchalantly mentioned a "decades-long drought in antibiotic discovery" and included a timeline graphic which illustrates this Discovery Void.  Take a look:

Hmmmm.  No major discoveries since 1987?  Perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise, since the "void" corresponds to the period of social dominance by the Boomers — you know, those great friends of humanity.

But this timeline just applies to one fairly-specialized field of chemical research, right?  Certainly it would be a mistake to think that this "discovery void" could apply more broadly, to scientific research in general... or would it?  Let's do a little review.

So, where we at on space research, brah?  How's NASA doing?  You remember NASA, right?  It's the only employer that has ever hired someone with five different master's degrees: Michael D. Griffin.  But we can cut Griffin some slack here.  When he served as the director of NASA from 2005 to 2009, he spent most of his time (unsuccessfully) campaigning for a manned Mars mission. 

On September 28, 2007, Griffin stated that NASA wanted to put a man on Mars by 2037.  Maybe we can still hope, but 30 years is quite a long time to prepare such a mission, especially since the last time a man walked on a floating rock in space was 1972.  Griffin made that statement 35 years after the last Apollo moon mission, and was projecting the next manned landing to happen 65 years after it.  This would put us at a 65 year void in manned space missions — a bit worse than the situation in antibiotics.  And since the Constellation Program was cancelled in 2009, it will probably be even longer than that.

But let's get back to terra firma here and talk about progress in the tech field, a topic that our Millennial comrades are always eager to discuss.  Certainly, CERTAINLY, there's just been a ton of new developments... Gen-Xish WIRED MAGAZINE even says so.

Examine if you will something called Xerox PARC.  You probably can't recall the Xerox Corporation either, but during the 1970s it ran a private R&D division called PARC — the Palo Alto Research Center.  Over the course of about a ten year period, researchers there invented the following phenomena (among others):

  • Laser printers
  • Computer-generated bitmap graphics (the ability to display images onscreen)
  • The 'graphical user interface', featuring windows and icons, operated by a mouse
  • Ethernet

Again, this was in the 1970s.  But most of this technology didn't reach the consumer market until the 1990s.  Steve Jobs and Apple Computer either licensed or shamelessly stole elements of PARC's GUI (Graphical User Interface) for its operating systems in the 1980s.  Then Microsoft either licensed or shamelessy stole elements of Apple's GUI for its own Windows operating system.  The sordid details all emerged in the mid 1990s when these three companies decided to take each other to court in an orgy of lawsuits (see: Apple Computer v. Microsoft Corp). Microsoft's latest operating system offerings (Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and even Windows 9),are still fundamentally based on research 40 years old, conducted by a company that had a fraction of Microsoft's (or Apple's) budget. 

Cellular phone technology is not new, either.  It too has existed since the 1970s (but the history is much more boring, so look it up yourself).  The operating system you use on your 'smartphone' (iOS, Android, etc) is just a scaled-down derivative of a derivative.  And if you want to tell me that touch screen devices are a major breakthrough, I'll remind you that the first touchscreen device was invented by E. A. Johnson in 1965.  The only thing 'new' about touchscreens and smartphones is the marketing ploy, or the receipts that you were handed when you purchased them recently.

Those of you who consider 'social networking' to be a 'new technology' have probably stopped reading by now, so I'll just address the Facebook and Twitter issue by saying this: both are, fundamentally, minimalist derivations of pre-existing technology, attractive to a new generation of Boomer victims who have never been taught what "new" or "original" actually mean.  Facebook is not the GUI or ethernet.  Twitter is not the laser printer or the bitmap graphics model.  People just treat them as such now, presumably because they have nothing else.

So... I don't know... has there actually been a "discovery void"?  Am I wrong to generalize when there are just so many important details that I am necessarily overlooking in my analysis?  Am I just blind to the bounty of wonderful discoveries that everyone else in the world is blissfully enjoying?  Feel free to decide for yourself.

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