Simultaneous invention is inevitable; Technology is inevitable - so why isn't it more obvious what to build?

Kevin Kelly stopped by the Google office a few days ago to talk about the some of the ideas in his book "What Technology Wants"

There are a lot of great ideas in there; one in particular gave me some food for thought on the train ride back home.


The idea that (paraphrasing)
"Simultaneous invention is inevitable, and proof that technological progress is inevitable."

Kelly cites a number of examples through history where a number of critical inventions/discoveries were arrived at independently - from the electric bulb (picture above) to the theory of evolution, to the atomic bomb.

This happened even though in most of these cases the inventors were working in isolation and didn't know about each others' work.

He postulates
  • A lot of things in technology and progress are just inevitable
  • But the details (i.e. how we get there) aren't and that's what our work tends to determine
For example: "The Internet was inevitable, but its decision decisions i.e. TCP/IP, decentralization etc. wasn't."

He sums it up nicely in the conclusion of this essay.

The recurring forms of simultaneous inventions in human history are dots on a long connected line that stretches from the big bang to the deep future. The parallel tracks of independent technological development on different continents trace, and re-trace, and re-trace again a similar trajectory — of a semi-autonomous system headed somewhere. The technium is not a random meandering. It is not an accident of human preferences, foibles, and once-in-a-millennial genius. The technium has a direction. At a macro scale, it is leaning towards increasing complexity, sentience, consilience, specialization, possibilities and choices. As it flows in that direction it unfolds its inevitable progression. Yet at the micro scale, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything, and to play out the details with grace and beauty.


I thought about how this applies to so much of what we do and how critical the last piece actually is - most people find it relatively easy to come up with how things should be "in the future", but are less successful in thinking about inventing the things we think people will care about tomorrow. Even though it is exactly these things in the intermediate that will take us to the inevitable future.

Given how many features and ideas companies simply borrow/steal/ or fast-follow from each other these days, this is even more critical to thinking of unique products - think of the vision in the future and implement the tactics in the interim to get you there, rather than try to one-up someone's successful feature.

Two examples particularly spring to mind immediately:
  • Ever since Star Trek, we've known that talking to your handheld device and making it do your bidding is inevitable - but Voice Actions for Android and Siri are ways for us to get there. This is a positive example of how the inventors pushed us towards a trend we all considered inevitable.
  • Now a bad example. About four years ago, I wrote a plan for what I can best describe (cringing now) as a collaborative, shared, curated system for people to build and publish "Internet experiences." My thesis was that (even back then!) there was too much noise on the Internet, collaborative filtering and social recommendation weren't enough by themselves and so.... I'd imagined a pretty ugly way (think Web CMS on steroids) to get this to work, but didn't do anything beyond submitting a business plan (ugh!) Yesterday, I stumbled on paper.li which was closest visually to what I'd imagined and thought of how Flipboard and this site were actually executing and taking us in direction that I (and likely a bunch of people much smarter than me) had considered obvious for a while.
The moral of the story:

Thinking about something great to invent tomorrow is harder than recognizing what is certain to be around five years from now. So do that first and figure out what you can do tomorrow to get there.

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