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The march of (technological) progress

By Ziggy Switkowski - posted Thursday, 3 September 2009

Technology sometimes moves more quickly than our ability to absorb the changes - even in such simple devices like remote controls and mobile phones

Our forebears 100 years ago could not have dreamt of the emergence of television, computers, satellites, lasers, iPods, or Google and Facebook. Nor of a global population (then approaching 2 billion) trending towards 10 billion people 150 years later in 2060. Or that a 21st century challenge would be an ageing population, not a prematurely dying one.

The defining technologies of the 21st century may not yet have taken form, but we can be certain that society’s challenges, our way of life, and our standard of living will be reshaped and improved by inventions and system leaps yet ahead.


Looking at the recent past, when Paul Keating handed government to John Howard in March 1996, none of, eBay, Google or Yahoo! were yet a significant public enterprise.

All subsequently listed in the following three years and helped propel the era.

In 1996, one in five Australians owned a mobile phone. The phones were mainly analogue and in the hands of commercial and tradespeople. The mobile phone had just arrived as an important productivity tool. Today, there are more phones than people and all are digital with features far beyond simple voice calls. And they resemble mobile video handsets more than telephones. No business - or teenager - can operate without one.

Although the personal computer had appeared in the early 1980s, by 1996 only one in three Australian homes owned a computer and fewer than one in 20 had internet access. Today, more than three-quarters of homes and all businesses have a PC, and almost all of them also have some form of internet access.

In 1996 domestic internet access speeds were just 14.4 kilobits a second. Content was text-only - no video, let alone YouTube. Outside of engineering and technology firms and universities, email was just appearing in the more progressive businesses. Today, almost all enterprises have internet access, with the government recently announcing an ambitious plan to build a national high speed, 100Mbs broadband network.

In 1996, wireless text messaging was not available in Australia - at all. Today more than a billion SMS messages are sent each month, a volume to be further increased by the number of tweets being broadcast by the Twitter message service. Subscription television had just been launched on the back of a controversial dual cable rollout, but plasma and LCD screens were yet to appear.


The past two decades have seen an evolution from analogue products (think vinyl records, black telephones tethered to wall sockets, photographic film, 26-inch boxy televisions) to an all-digital ecosystem largely shaped by advances in the broad categories of IT, communications and the internet. The last industry to convert to a digital base is free-to-air network television, which will belatedly join the 21st century by 2013 according to the government’s timetable.

Spending on information technology has lifted to about half of many firm’s capital budget with large investments still ahead to address remaining legacy issues and new opportunities.

Ubiquitous communications have given meaning to the concept of 24/7. Technology sometimes moves more quickly than our ability to absorb the changes - even in such simple devices like remote controls and mobile phones.

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This is an edited version of Dr Switkowski’s address to the ATSE Clunies Ross Awards dinner in Sydney in May 2009. First published in ATSE Focus in Volume 156 - June/July - "Innovation: Are we getting it right?" ATSE Focus is a non-refereed publication. The views expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Academy.

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About the Author

Dr Ziggy Switkowski FTSE is chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). In 2006 he chaired the Prime Minister’s Review of Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy, whose report re-introduced nuclear power into Australia’s energy debate. He is a former chief executive of Telstra, Optus and Kodak (Australasia). Presently he is a non-executive director of Suncorp, Tabcorp and Healthscope, and Chair of Opera Australia. Dr Switkowski is a graduate of the University of Melbourne with a PhD in nuclear physics.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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