Acton Institute Powerblog

Tempering Predictions of Progress

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I was reading about Bill Gates’ speech to the Northern Virginia Technology Council last week, which received a lot of media coverage (PDF transcript here).

In the speech about software innovation, Gates “speculated that some of the most important advances will come in the ways people interact with computers: speech-recognition technology, tablets that will recognize handwriting and touch-screen surfaces that will integrate a wide variety of information.”

“I don’t see anything that will stop the rapid advance,” Gates said. I appreciate the insight that a corporate mogul and business insider like Gates provides.

The predictions did make me think about this observation from Alasdair MacIntyre, however, which serves to temper some of the more audacious claims often made about technological progress.

MacIntyre writes,

Any invention, any discovery, which consists essentially in the elaboration of a radically new concept cannot be predicted, for a necessary part of the prediction is the present elaboration of the very concept whose discovery or invention was to take place only in the future. The notion of the prediction of radical conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent.

To his credit, much of what Gates is describing doesn’t meet these criteria. They are not “radically new” concepts, but the integrative alteration of already existing concepts (some might argue that this has essentially been the modus operandi for Microsoft’s success: not innovation per se, but rather innovative popularization of integration).

That said, we need to be cautious about the precision of our claims about future innovation. Statistically we can predict that radical innovations are quite likely to happen, but by definition we can’t know what they will be.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Marshall McLuhan argued that every technology was the magnification of some human sense or ability. So one way to analyze a new technology was to ask what sense or ability was being heightened—and on the other side what sense or ability was being backgrounded. The biggest real change seems to be how much time is in each equation. Many tasks require much less human effort than they did before. But that the new technologies will increase our sensory powers and abilities, that part of the equation will not undergo too much of a radical conceptual innovation, as truly striking as the results may be.