How invention timelines distort

The screen culture era that we have entered is clearly here to stay – but it does represent some interesting nuance in human perception. Given that we are in the middle of a technological upheaval there is a default belief that everything newer is better. And often it is, the real challenge is for us to train ourselves to stop and compare the new option with the existing method. Once we start to do this, we might surprise ourselves to find we adopt a lot of new technology for reasons that defy relative utility.

This short doco I was watching on the future of connections got me thinking about it more deeply. Our current obsession with the screen as the default to every solution to every business flow problem. The idea that UX is seen as a screen issue, that we use digital to replicate analog, and the fact that we even make ebooks look as though they are turning paper pages, says that our we are distorting the true utility of the tools we are using.

So let’s imagine for a minute that the digital screen was invented before paper was. That paper, and printing upon it had just arrived today. I have no doubt that the same level of excitement would bubble around this as a technology. We’d all be very quick to point out the benefits of the printed word and visual over the screen:

  • It doesn’t need electricity
  • You can drop it without breaking it
  • It’s super light
  • It can be incredibly thin…. “paper thin?”
  • It can have a superior resolution
  • It’s flexible and can be shoved in a bag, folded, rolled etc
  • It can be compiled into multiple sheets or bound together
  • It doesn’t take memory to scroll through, or load up, you just turn directly to a particular page
  • It can be written on with almost any writing device (which probably wouldn’t have been invented yet!)
  • It’s very low cost to produce single or multiple copies
  • Data can be generated on it and stored with or without computing power
  • It can be sent without risk (although mail probably wouldn’t exist – but it would be a ‘hot’ startup vertical!)
  • You can tear out a page or square and give it to someone

You get the picture…. and I’m sure you can make an equally compelling list in reverse which is ‘pro digital screen’. And the irony is not lost on me that the current battle in screen technology is for one that can can flex without breaking.

So why does this matter? Because it is time we started again to focus on utility, not newness for the sake of it. It is time we appreciated the variety of tools at our disposal and used them interchangeably or together based on suitability. But most of all it’s time we started to remember why technology matters, which we can do by reminding ourselves of the definition according the Oxford Dictionary:

Technology: The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.

Or put another way, the thing ought serve the purpose, the purpose is not the thing – unless of course it’s the thing we sell.

As far as startups and entrepreneurs are concerned, there’s a clue in all this. The only way we’ll ever get adoption of our technology, will be if it ‘practically’ supersedes the alternative.


2 Comments How invention timelines distort

  1. Ben Rowe


    That’s probably the best blog post you’ve ever written – and I’ve been reading from the very beginning.

    There’s a book-worth of thinking around this idea – you should write that book.

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