There a lot of ways to think about and approach technology. One way is to visualize stairs and each new technology is a step. Those steps climb upward to some unknown but presumed better end. Here’s an example: A step may be the most basic form of a wheel, then the next step would be something built on top of that wheel like a wagon, at some point you put that wagon with wheels on tracks and power it by a steam engine—another step, and so on until you arrive at today with a fully autonomous electric car with advanced sensors and artificial intelligence. If you view everything as steps, you can look around and try to guess at what the next step will be based on previous steps, but also based on the trend of the staircase overall—measuring the rise and the run over time. You can also dissect the trajectory of the individual component parts. Wheel technology, engine technology, fuel technology, driver control interface and so on. Each part’s improvement adds to the rise of the next stair.
Another way of thinking about technology is to think about any given technology’s core purpose, it’s fundamental truth. When you strip everything away what are those few things that remain true throughout every incremental technological advancement. It’s no longer a staircase on a timeline, but a single immutable point. In the wheel to self driving car progression for example, the fundamental truth throughout all of that impressive technological advancement is conveyance. Human beings meeting other human beings, being in close physical proximity to other human beings. Even if Star Trek transporter beam technology existed today that fundamental truth would still exist and drive people to seek out more efficient and faster modes of travel to be closer together. Notice I didn’t say safer because if safety were a real priority, no one would drive anywhere today and they certainly wouldn’t have driven 30 years ago when cars were much less safe.
You can do this with any technology: Spear to bow and arrow to canon ball to lead bullet to rocket to ICBM—whatever the order, whatever the technical details or complexity, the fundamental truth is the killing of your enemies before they can kill you. Telegram to telephone to email to AOL instant messenger to Facebook and Twitter to iPhone to Snapchat and Slack—the fundamental truth is human to human communication. Whether that communication be voice, text or images. From this perspective your iPhone isn’t a computer in your pocket that happens to have a phone app, it’s a phone—an object in society that intentionally allows, and has trained us to allow, interruption because we’ve all agreed communicating is that important—a phone in your pocket that happens to have a computer feature. This can easily explain why Facebook, Twitter, Messages, Snapchat dominate phone usage statistics and why app install rates for non-conversation related services are so low.
With this view of technology, any particular tech only matters as a means to act most directly and/or most efficiently on these fundamental truths. It generates big questions about our current and future evolution as a species. And ultimately, I think this is a test of potential impact for any new technology: What fundamental truth does it speak to? How can it be best leveraged to impact that truth most directly? What is the context in which that technology is being deployed? What are the characteristics of fundamental truths? How can technology be leveraged to expose currently hidden fundamental truths?
There are other views of technology, other measures of impact, other categories and boundaries or options I can’t even imagine that have been thought of by others years ago and will be thought of and employed by those in the future. But my point is that we all need to be thinking about technology very deeply from many different angles—including, and especially, from angles where any particular technology itself is tangential. The physical gadget is cool and interesting, the user interface is bright and attractive, the business is sound, the catch phrase interesting, and the progression is impressive but what are the fundamental truths addressed? How are those leveraged? How are humans as a species impacted?
My mission is to help make the future happen faster and the reason I am writing this is to encourage innovation and suggest possible perspectives for others to view technology and its role in the world. To remind folks smarter than me to look for and to pay attention to the fundamental truths. Truths that are inherently long term, inherently valuable—and the foundation for meaningful innovation.
December 6th, 2016