Throughout history, major changes in society and the way people live and do business have been determined by the developments in technology corresponding to each particular era.
Over the past 300 years, the world has changed dramatically. Today it would barely be recognizable to someone from the 18th century. What has made the world so different? From the way people live to the way they do business, almost everything about existence has been impacted by five distinct waves of technological innovation.
These technology waves30 have resulted in progression in society, with each wave inciting change and advancement before eventually giving way to a new wave. In order to comprehend this, we must first look at the underlying technologies that make a technology wave possible.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GENERAL PURPOSE TECHNOLOGIES
None of the technology waves would have been possible without general-purpose technologies (GPT). GPTs are an essential component in connecting the past with the present and future technological outlooks. In general terms, a GPT is a single generic technology that develops over time but can still be recognized as the same technology over its lifetime. Initially, a GPT has much room for growth, and it eventually becomes widely used. It is not only used by many, but has numerous uses, and spills over into countless other areas and sectors. The wheel, the printing press and the computer are three great examples of GPTs that have paved the way for human advancement in many different areas.
In order to have a new technological wave, there must be one, or several, GPTs to drive it. Identifying a GPT in its nascent state is very hard. However, there are many new technologies that can be labeled as potential GPTs, and to qualify, a technology must meet certain criteria.
Although many non-GPTs may have some of these characteristics, and may even demonstrate a single characteristic to a greater extent than a GPT, only a true GPT will have all four and will be able to launch a new technological wave. For example, although gunpowder transformed the Western world in certain ways, it is not a GPT because of its limited use, and therefore it is not the centre point of a technological wave.
There is no doubt that the sixth technological wave is upon us, but before we can understand what is coming, it’s important to look back at the first five waves and how they were shaped.