Kevin Kelly has written up yet another must read discussion -- this one looking into the inevitability of Moore's Law
. In it, he looks not just at Moore's Law, but how a variety of different technologies have all found similar "laws" where they get better/smaller/cheaper/faster at an exponential rate, at a pace that sticks so closely to an observed curve as to seem predetermined by fate. DNA sequencing, magnetic storage, semiconductors, bandwidth, pixel density all seem to follow this same thing, and Kelly notes that each case is separate. While some may influence others, it's not a case where one is dependent on another.
He notes that this certainly doesn't apply to all technologies -- but it does seem to be limited to technologies that scale down
at microscopic sizes, rather than technologies that scale up (i.e., improvements to airplane or automobile technology aren't seeing any such rate of change). His argument is that this is due to energy requirements. Scaling up requires more energy, which greatly limits growth. But scaling down does not.
But where this gets most interesting is that, the more Kelly explores the issue, the more convinced he is (and he makes a compelling case) that this sort of technological progress is pretty much inevitable
. It can be slowed down by bad policy, but it can't be stopped. And, what's most compelling to me is that this sort of progress isn't dependent on anything like patents. It's happening no matter what. The advancement of technology happens for a variety of reasons, little of which has to do with "protecting" the ideas. In fact, within that "protection" there's little benefit.
Everyone recognizes these curves and where they're headed, and how following along the path of that curve creates so many off-shoot benefits (what some might call externalities
), that the idea of hoarding a concept or an idea is actually counterproductive
. The benefits to staying on the curve in some way or another are so great that people implicitly recognize that helping others (even competitors) keep everyone
on the curve isn't a bad thing -- but in many cases a very good thing. That's because everyone is better off, and the opportunities increase across the board
as you stay on such a curve. And, in fact, this is where all that research on noncompetes
comes in. While it's rarely official company policy (they all still talk up patents and trade secrets and such), it's quite common when there are issues in getting to that next level, engineers start sharing ideas or more importantly
jump ship from company to company, so the ideas get spread that way. Advancement continues, and the world is better off -- not because of patents, but because of a more free flow of information.
Kelly doesn't get into that aspect of the discussion -- focusing just on the inevitability of the growth rate -- but it's a key point. Notice that none of what he's discussing really involves some major breakthrough discovery or some brilliant invention. There are lots of breakthroughs and lots of brilliant people involved, of course, but they're all progressing in the direction where they need
to go. One may get there first, but that's hardly the breakthrough. Lots of others are all progressing along those same lines. The progress isn't driven by patents, but by the technology itself and the massive opportunity its advancement
creates. In many ways this relates back to our discussion of how, throughout history, nearly every major scientific "breakthrough" has occurred to multiple independent people
at almost the exact same time. It's the natural progress of applying ideas to problems, and following where the technology allows you to go.
As such, there's an argument to be made that patents get in the way of this sort of progress. Since much of the progress is, in fact, a progression, rather than a "breakthrough," and it's done by a variety of different people (or teams of people), everyone is actually better off not in limiting that progress by holding back an idea or requiring a tollbooth to be a part of the process, but in lowering the barriers to it, and letting that true pace of advancement quicken.