Is Technology Advancing or Declining?

In Isaac Asimov's novel Prelude to Foundation, an unknown mathematician named Hari Seldon travels from his podunk home planet to the Galactic Empire's capital world to give a presentation on a theoretical curiosity he dubs psychohistory (which is essentially a way to broadly predict the future). Naturally, the potential for this theory attracts the powerful, and Seldon goes on the run with the help of a journalist friend named Chetter Hummin. Hummin contends that "The Galactic Empire is Dying." Seldon is frankly surprised by this thesis and eventually asks for an explanation:
... "all over the Galaxy trade is stagnating. People think that because there are no rebellions at the moment and because things are quiet that all is well and that the difficulties of the past few centuries are over. However, political infighting, rebellions, and unrest are all signs of a certain vitality too. But now there's a general weariness. It's quiet, not because people are satisfied and prosperous, but because they're tired and have given up."

"Oh, I don't know," Seldon said dubiously.

"I do. And the Antigrav phenomenon we've talked about is another case in point. We have a few gravitic lifts in operation, but new ones aren't being constructed. It's an unprofitable venture and there seems no interest in trying to make it profitable. The rate of technological advance has been slowing for centuries and is down to a crawl now. In some cases, it has stopped altogether. Isn't this something you've noticed? After all, you're a mathematician."

"I can't say I've given the matter any thought."
Hummin acknowledges that he could be wrong (partly out of a desire to manipulate Seldon to develop psychohistory so as to confirm whether or not the Empire really is dying), but those who've read the Foundation Novels know he's right.

The reasons for this digression into decaying Galactic Empires include my affinity for quoting fiction to make a point and a post by Ken at ChicagoBoyz regarding technological stagnation (which immediately made me think of Asimov's declining Empire). Are we in a period of relative technological stagnation? I'm hardly an expert, but I have a few thoughts.

First, what constitutes advance or stagnation? Ken points to a post that argues that the century of maximum change is actually the period 1825-1925. It's an interesting post, but it only pays lipservice to the changes he sees occurring now:
From time to time I stumble across articles by technology-oriented writers claiming that we're living in an era of profound, unprecedented technological change. And their claim usually hinges on the emergence of the computer.

Gimme a break.

I'll concede that in certain areas such as biology and medicine, changes over the past few decades have been more profound than at any time in history. And true, computers have made important changes in details of our daily lives.

But in those daily life terms, the greatest changes happened quite a while ago.
The post seems to focus on disruptive changes, but if something is not disruptive, does that really mean that technology is not advancing? And why are changes in transportation capabilities (for instance) more important than communication, biology, or medicine? Also, when we're talking about measuring technological change over a long period of time, it's worth noting that advances or declines would probably not move in a straight line. There would be peaks where it seems like everything is changing at once, and lulls when it seems like nothing is changing (even though all the pieces may be falling into place for a huge change).

Most new technological advances are really abstracted efficiencies - it's the great unglamorous march of technology. They're small and they're obfuscated by abstraction, thus many of the advances are barely noticed. Computers and networks represent a massive improvement in information processing and communication capabilities. I'd wager that even if we are in a period of relative technological stagnation (which I don't think we are), we're going to pull out of it in relatively short order because the advent of computers and networks means that information can spread much faster than it could in the past. A while ago, Steven Den Beste argued that the four most important inventions in history are: "spoken language, writing, movable type printing and digital electronic information processing (computers and networks)."
When knowledge could only spread by speech, it might take a thousand years for a good idea to cross the planet and begin to make a difference. With writing it could take a couple of centuries. With printing it could happen in fifty years. With computer networks, it can happen in a week if not less. ... That's a radical change in capability; a sufficient difference in degree to represent a difference in kind. It means that people all over the world can participate in debate about critical subjects with each other in real time.

We're already seeing some of the political, technological and cultural effects of the Internet, and this is just a start. What this means is that drastic cultural shakeout cannot be avoided. The next fifty years are going to be a very interesting time as the Internet truly creates the Global Village.
Indeed, part of the reason technologists are so optimistic about the rate of technological change is that we see it all the time on the internet. We see some guy halfway across the world make an observation or write a script, and suddently it shows up everywhere, spawning all sorts of variants and improvements. When someone invents something these days, it only takes a few days for it to be spread throughout the world and improved upon.

Of course, there are many people who would disagree with Ken's assertion that we're in a period of technological stagnation. People like Ray Kurzweil or Vernor Vinge would argue that we're on the edge of a technological singularity - that technology is advancing so quickly that we can't quantify it, and that we're going to eventually use technology to create an entity with greater than human intelligence.

I definitely think there is a problem with determining the actual rate of change. As I mentioned before, what qualifies as a noteworthy change? It's also worth noting that long-term technological effects are sometimes difficult to forecast. Most people picture the internet as being a centrally planned network, but it wasn't. Structurally, the internet is more like an evolving ecosystem than anything that was centrally designed. Those who worked on the internet in the 1960s and 1970s probably had no idea what it would eventually become or how it would affect our lives today. And honestly, I'm not sure we know today what it will be like in another 30 years...

One of the reasons I quoted Asimov's novel at the beginning of this post is that I think he captured what a technologically declining civilization would be like. The general weariness, the apathy, and the lack of desire to even question why. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that things are slowing down these days. Perhaps we're in a lull (it sure doesn't seem like it though), but I can see that edge, and I don't see weariness in those that will take us there...