March 14, 2014

Chart of the Week: The ever-accelerating rate of technology adoption

chart showing adoption rates of various technologies

The World Wide Web as we know it was first sketched out a quarter-century ago this week by Tim Berners-Lee, a contractor at the European physics lab CERN. Berners-Lee didn’t actually build out the Web until late 1990, and not until August 1991 did it become publicly available outside CERN.

Since then, of course, the Web has rapidly become so ubiquitous that it’s hard for many to remember how they bought things, did research, watched video or kept up with friends and family before it. If it seems like the Web has gone from “the World Wide What?” to necessity of modern life in record time — well, it has, as the chart above illustrates.

Using data from the website (of course) for futurist Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book The Singularity is Near, The Economist’s chart not only depicts just how quickly the Web caught on, but also shows a larger trend of ever-more-rapid adoption of new technologies over the past century and a half. Kurzweil argues that the pace will continue accelerating until, sometime around 2045, human and machine intelligence will merge and “the knowledge and skills embedded in our brains will be combined with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our own creations.”

Not everyone, of course, will go as far as Kurzweil, either conceptually or into the future. But when the Pew Research Center asked hundreds of experts about their predictions for digital life in the year 2025, they foresaw the Web — and the internet more broadly — evolving into “a global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment.” Tapping into that sea of information, they believe, will become as effortless and automatic as flicking on an electric light switch — if not more so.

Category: Chart of the Week

Topics: Technology Adoption, Future of the Internet

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    “Tapping into that sea of information, they believe, will become as effortless and automatic as flicking on an electric light switch — if not more so.”

    For the 1% of global population, maybe. Who will eventually be as thoroughly cooked as the remaining 99% unless they cut a deal with them that will certainly delay their own rapture until long after they are too dead to enjoy it.

    So ask yourself: Are you so very glad to be haplessly assuming the price of our forefathers bequeathed to us by their demand for immediate gratification through the assimilation of the defenseless into their colonial empires?

    Eat, drink, and continue be indifferent, for in the long run we’re all dead. Or perhaps worse?

  2. Vic Volpe3 years ago

    The advance of human understanding of our place in the universe has always appeared to be rapid. If you listen to JFK’s speech in Houston, Texas (1962) on why we are going to the Moon, he makes an anology of human history in 50 years and how many of the discoveries were quite recent — nevertheless, we push onward.

  3. Michal Galdzicki3 years ago

    How did you choose which technologies to put on this chart? The ones you chose do follow this pattern. Are you saying all tech follows this pattern? I bet I could find a selection of items / technology that is in reverse of this pattern. What ‘kind’ of technology, theoretically speaking, does this apply to?

  4. Ryan Charleston3 years ago

    You can add Bitcoin to this list next year as it will have taking only 5 or 6 years to be adopted by 25% of the US population!

  5. Fred Ledley, Center for Integration of Science and Industry3 years ago

    Is this really a metric of either the technology or the efficiency of translational science, or it is a phenomenon related to the efficiency of marketing in a consumer-focused society? Classical theories of technology diffusion posit that the rate of adoption is due to four variables; technology, communication channels, the social system, and time. It is interesting that each of these technologies may improves the efficiency of communication and social systems (including business models) around electronic communication and would be expected to facilitate diffusion of its successor. While this chart (or versions of it) have long been used to promote the notion of technological progress, it may be a better chart for the evolution of our society.

  6. Nancy Heltman3 years ago

    I can’t figure out what the number in parentheses next to each means.

    1. Mike3 years ago

      Look right below the title. It’s how many years it took until each was used by at least 1/4 of the U.S. so electricity took 46 years till 1/4 of the U.S. used it whereas the web only took 7

    2. Warren3 years ago

      That’s the number of years it took for 1/4 of the population to adopt this technology.

    3. Tyler Lima3 years ago

      the exact year it took for the technology to catch on.

    4. Gassan Soukaev3 years ago

      How many years it took to adopt that technology

  7. Tim Schreier3 years ago

    What would be of great interest today is the rejection rate of new technologies as well. Will wearables like Google Glass, Watches (first tried by MSFT’s SPOT group in the early 2000s and now all the rage from Apple, etc) go the way of the QR Code? Sony Betamax vs. VHS vs. DVR vs. Streaming Media… etc, etc, etc…
    Tim Schreier
    New York, NY