Ten things holding back tech

Summary:Ever get the feeling that we aren't quite yet where we want to be? Here are 10 factors that may be holding back the world's technological development

...think beyond speed alone will gain a whole new advantage over its competitors: smarter, not faster, will lead to both smarter and faster.

6. Intellectual property law
John Tehranian, a University of Utah law professor, has worked out that someone doing a job like his could, under US law, be committing more than 80 infringements of copyright a day — even without any P2P file-sharing shenanigans — and end up with multi-billion-dollar fines every year. Even whistling a tune in public is a multi-thousand-dollar mistake.

Intellectual property law is broken. Creativity needs protection, but the current system isn't working. Designed to encourage inventiveness and the building of ideas on ideas, it instead rewards power and influence with more power and influence. The ideal world of the intellectual property lawyer is one where nothing can move without permission; no idea can happen unless it is approved.

This is no model for a world where ideas can spread like never before and information is freer than even the most utopian could have imagined 50 years ago. A new way of thinking about information ownership is needed, and quickly.

7. Skills inequalities
Applications and technology might become more intuitive and creative if more women were involved in the industry. Diversity breeds innovation.

Technology has traditionally been terrible at attracting anyone but the technically minded. Seen by many as incredibly dull and exclusive, the industry most needs the influence of those who give it the least thought. Even the best technical process could benefit from a little humanity.

Industry is also waking up to the developing world and beginning to hear its voice. Technology has the capability of leapfrogging the biggest problems, but only if it's built to match the needs of the people it serves.

The more IT listens to and gives power to those it has traditionally excluded, the better it will be suited to solve real problems for us all.

8. Web 2.0
Speaking of daft innovations that do little to better the lives of humanity, Web 2.0 has a lot to answer for. So the web's gone two-way. Great. But the extremes of enthusiasm shown by financiers and business people are verging on counterproductive.

Do we really need applications like Twitter? What price a poke on Facebook? Microsoft's recent purchase of a chunk of Facebook valued the social-networking company at $15bn (£7.2bn). This is a company that does not yet have a proven business plan, despite having big aspirations as a marketing hub. Two years ago, eBay bought Skype for $2.6bn and Skype — a mostly free service — is currently struggling to justify that price.

It's nice to see the vanguard cashing in. But they're not really worth their valuations or the mountains of cash they have received from venture capitalists, whose money could probably find better use in other areas of technological innovation.

With the global economy in its current, credit-crunched state, Web 2.0 runs the risk of not only taking funding away from worthier areas of research but also contributing to a downturn that may hit the tech industry particularly hard. It remains a crucial element of the way we interact through technology, but its business models need a lot of work.

9. National interests
Every country places a high value — often the highest of values — on the rule of law. So why do they insist on behaving towards each other in a state of virtual anarchy?

If we view technology as a globally collaborative effort, one of the clearest barriers to its development is that of national interests. Look at the interminable arguments in organisations like the International Telecommunication Union. Countries defend the interests of their indigenous corporations and lobby groups; the idea that these interests may be better served in the long term by ceding ground in the short is as popular as skinny-dipping in the Antarctic.

Sometimes it is hard to escape the notion that certain countries are deviating from the pack just for the sake of it, much as Napoleon and the US had horses and carriages use the right-hand side of the road for no other reason than the British used the left.

Despite the upcoming Olympics, China is still dragging its heels over the deployment of 3G because it wants to use its own home-grown standard, TD-SCDMA. Its motivations for this include avoiding payments to western patent holders, but the main driver is the fact that China has a large enough internal market to not have to worry about inconsistencies with international norms. Overall, progress is yet again slowed down.

Some national interests have an almost absurdly negative effect on international technological development. For years, the US government classified encryption technology as a munition, and had export laws that forbade the distribution to the world of chips using the RSA algorithm. The ban proved unworkable in the long term but, for a long while, it seriously held back the development of security technology around the world.

10. The current lack of global wars and/or disasters
Forget peace, love and understanding. For a real boost, technology needs war. World War II gave us radar, rockets, the jet engine and digital computing. It also gave us 50 million dead.

These days, warfare still results in misery and death, but the technological benefits are harder to appreciate. There's not much in a stealth fighter or bomb-disposal robot that helps away from the battlefield.

Let's stick to metaphorical warfare. That's something politicans are good at promoting, but bad at executing — the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror" both sound good but have generated little of note, beyond copious government expenditure on ever more inventive ways to annoy their own citizens.

If we must have war, we might as well use it wisely. The biggest threats to mankind are environmental change, disease and international political and economic upheaval. Putting the nations of the world on a war footing against this terrible triad would produce a flowering of new, focused thinking and technologies — and nobody would get hurt.

Rupert Goodwins contributed to this article.

Topics: Tech Industry


David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't be paying many bills. His early journalistic career was spent in general news, working behind the scenes for BBC radio and on-air as a newsreader for independent stations. David's main focus is on communications, of both... Full Bio

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