Monday, October 10, 2011

Translation and the Slowdown in Technological Innovation

Leo: My generation never got the future it was promised... Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don't even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped.
Josh: The personal computer...
Leo: A more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography? Where's my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?
--The West Wing, “The Warfare of Genghis Khan”

We live in a time of crisis. In periods such as this, long-held beliefs begin to be questioned. I am reading the heartbreaking stories from the “We Are the 99%” tumblr and I see over and over how many young people say that the “American Dream” was a lie. That sort of pessimism among Americans was previously unthinkable. That same corrosive questioning is spreading to a lot of other acritical beliefs that seemed to be ingrained into the collective psyche. To cite a few examples, there used to be the belief that owning a home was absolutely a must (and that it was the best investment an individual could make). A previously unimaginable five-year-long (!) slump in home prices has put paid to that idea. Blogger James Altucher and others are campaigning against the idea that going to college is necessary or even advisable to ensure a better economic outcome. The conviction that the stock market always rises in the long run is slowly being relegated to the same back closet occupied by flat Earthism, epicycles and spontaneous generation. It is a shame that a prolonged period of economic crisis was necessary for people to question acritical dogma, but at least that is one positive side effect of the present troubles.

It is poignant that in the same week that Steve Jobs died, two essays by very different figures came out analyzing a slowdown in the pace of technological progress, another previously unthinkable state of things. Writing in The National Review, tech venture capitalist Peter Thiel writes about “The End of the Future”:
When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.

The tone is similar in an essay by cyberpunk (for the record, I don’t actually know what that means) novelist Neal Stephenson. He cites the stagnation in progress and posits that one of the causes is the excessive amount of information available to innovators and companies. This info-indigestion creates the illusion of computer-fueled certainty (while Stephenson does not dwell on the example, this is exactly what happened with the software designed to monitor risk in the run-up to the financial crisis):
Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.

Slowly, more and more voices are considering the heretical notion that the age of constant and rapid technological progress may be behind us. Chief among those voices is the economist Tyler Cowen, who provides the most analytical version of the thesis in a brief tract entitled The Great Stagnation. Mind you, he is not a Luddite. He actually buys into a lot of the fashionable Clay Shirky “cognitive surplus” ideas, but he feels that there has been a structural shift in the American economy that has led to a slowdown in the pace of innovation.

According to Cowen, the Technological Revolution is behind us and it has been that way for some time now (moreover, he has the economic data to prove it):
The period from 1880 to 1940 brought numerous major technological advances into our lives. The long list of new developments includes electricity, electric lights, powerful motors, automobiles, airplanes, household appliances, indoor plumbing, pharmaceuticals, mass production, the typewriter, the tape recorder, the phonograph, and radio [and] television…Today, in contrast, apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different than what it was in 1953. We still drive cars, use refrigerators, and turn on the light switch…The wonders portrayed in The Jetsons, the space-age television cartoon from the 1960s, have not come to pass.
Moreover, what little technological progress there is provides less and less wealth for society at large.  Listen to his description of the “Facebook economy”:
Most Web activities do not generate jobs and revenue at the rate of past technological breakthroughs. When Ford and General Motors were growing in the early part of the twentieth century, they created millions of jobs and helped build Detroit into a top-tier U.S. city. Today, Facebook creates a lot of voyeuristic pleasure, but the company doesn't employ many people and hasn't done much for Palo Alto; a lot of the 'work' is performed more or less automatically by the software and the servers. You could say that the real work is done by its users, in their spare time and as a form of leisure. Web 2.0 is not filling government coffers or supporting many families, even though it's been great for users, programmers, and some information technology specialists. Everyone on the Web has heard of Twitter, but as of Fall 2010, only about three hundred people work there. [Location 494-495]
The shutdown of the Space Shuttle program earlier this year for me was a dramatic illustration of this state of affairs. I was born two years after the Moon landing. For my generation, space travel just didn’t hold the same mystique as for people only five or six years older, who actually remember viewing on live TV the scenes of Armstrong and Aldrin stepping on the lunar surface. But growing up in Houston in the eighties, when the Shuttle program was first developed, I can remember the huge enthusiasm surrounding the project. Of course, a ship that just made routine Earth orbits was not exactly going to set the world on fire. No, it certainly wasn’t as sexy as Sputnik or Apollo 11, but I guess we implicitly believed that those humdrum orbits were only a first step before routine trips farther and farther from the Earth. Thirty years ago, the notion that a human being would have landed on Mars by now would have been pretty credible. But nowadays it is a vague ideal envisioned by the Chinese and not really achievable for a decade or more (and still using old rocket technology designed half a century ago). The closest we are to Mars is six would-be cosmonauts who spent two years cooped up in a motor home in Moscow (“The Pretend to go to Mars Race”, as Stephen Colbert called it). If a quarter of a century ago you had told me that our greatest achievement was a medium that allowed you to send 140-character messages to hundreds of people at once, I probably would have felt a pang of sadness.

In the world of translation technology, I think this slowdown in innovation is implicit in the “Lower Quality Translation” movement. Another instance is Luis von Anh’s depressing belief that if you give 100,000 chimpanzees a PC, you will eventually get King Alfonso’s Toledo School of Translators. Since the attempt to build fully automated translation machines has hit a wall, the solution has been to hook up the crowd of hamsters to a computer network, because Moore’s Law is still the only game in town. The objective is to solve every problem through brute processing force. Now, I wouldn’t mind being replaced by an algorithm, but I would mind being drafted in to supplement the deficiencies of a bad algorithm. Yes, greater productivity is achieved and greater volume is created, but there is a point in which larger and larger amounts of translated garbage simply clutter up an increasingly trashy Internet (the underlying thesis of my posts on the Content Tsunami). And, of course, if your objective is to dump garbage all over cyberspace, the hamsters doing the dumping need to be paid as little as possible. Surely, there has to be a better way. And if there isn’t, maybe we should invent one.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, several small-and-medium-sized brokerages, asset management institutions based in Spain, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network or follow him on Twitter.


Paul Cohen said...

It just so happens that I've been reading "Pale Blue Dot" by Carl Sagan, and your blog entry here reads like an epilogue to his musings about the fate of future voyages to the stars. Sagan's book was written back in the mid-1990s, at a time when enthusiasm for the space program had largely waned, and the dream of reaching out to the stars was looking increasingly unrealistic. Back then, I think I was having too much fun playing with the Internet to notice that technology was slowing down, but the "West Wing" excerpt (which struck a powerful chord with me when I saw it on TV) says it all. When I was a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, we all assumed that tomorrow's gadgets would look nothing like today's contraptions.

Look at the bright side: If technology stops accelerating at the same breakneck speed, perhaps it gives our species a window of opportunity to kick-start a social revolution that will allow us to use this technology effectively and responsibly -- although, to be perfectly frank, the events of the depressing last decade point toward a world that is actually even more mired in religious sectarianism and voodoo morality. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that we'll eventually get our jet packs and colonies on the moon... and a few jaw-dropping, amazing toys to boot.

Miguel Llorens M. said...

I also worry about religious extremism and voodoo economics, but I think one bigger and more immediate issue is the belief that our technology is more powerful or advanced than it really is. For example, that if you feed millions of mortgages into a database you can predict how the mortgage market will evolve. That is spurious, because historical data on mortgages is very scarce and only goes back a few decades. With a small sample and powerful processing, you get the inane conclusion that house prices never go down. There is a LOT of that going on. Nassim Taleb has written extensively about the mindless application of statistical models to complex reality.