Is the pace of technology adoption really speeding up?

Yes it is, according to the Harvard Business Review. No it isn’t, if you take a close look at their evidence.

Regular readers will know this is a regular theme of mine, so let’s first clear out of the way some of the common mistakes people make, which to its credit the Harvard Business Review’s argument doesn’t repeat. The data in the graph below is for take-up of technology per household in the US, so it avoids the common mistake of mixing US-only figures with the world (not hard to find things are bigger when you change your reference frame) and it also avoids the common mistake of not adjusting for growth in population (there are more people and more homes, so of course crude totals for number of technology devices out there have gone out).

But now take a close look at the graph used. Ignore the headline and look at the slope of the lines on it:

Take up of technology in US households

Some old technology was certainly slow to take-off compared to the more recent ones. The telephone, for example. But more recent technology has also been slow, such as dishwashers. And look at the pace with which refrigerators spread. This isn’t a simple pattern of how you get further to the right, the lines get steeper. (Plus there’s also the factor that in part what the right hand side of the graph shows us is what happens in economic good times, so if you really want a like-for-like comparison you need to leave out parts of the graphs such as the 1930s Great Depression, when take up of several technologies sagged. That makes the picture even less one of ‘wooo, speeding up’.)

This all fits with the theme I’ve talked about before, such as the remarkable speed with which the telegraph spread across Australia or more generally, in my talk that featured a chicken which sadly is no longer on the internet…

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