I was pointed yesterday to an article on Harvard Business Review that talked about how machine intelligence was about to change the world. It was interesting enough, although talked a great deal about MI being a “predictive” technology. As I’ve expressed many times, the human desire for sages of the future is deep and a terrible flaw in our psyche. MIs have the potential to be very clever extrapolative technologies, but they’ll no more be able to “predict” the future than Mystic Meg.

At the bottom of the post, in their “people who liked this article also liked”-type navigation system, there was a link to a piece by the world’s most highly paid business professor, Michael Porter. I was interested to see what he had to say on the matter… 

The information revolution is sweeping through our economy. No company can escape its effects. Dramatic reductions in the cost of obtaining, processing, and transmitting information are changing the way we do business.

I was kind of expecting something a little more cutting, I guess, from a man playing six-figure speaking gigs. But then I realised that Porter’s article was from 1985.

I commented back to the person who has originally shared the first article on how amazing it was that 31 years on the narrative has barely moved on (and yet the world around us has undoubtedly changed).

Her response was that but that this time around the technology would be better.

That feels to me to be the technologists foible. That if something is adopted it’s because the technology is good, if not because it is bad, and the answer is always better technology.

But what that does is to ignore that many, many bad technologies get adopted at scale. From VHS to fax to spreadsheets to email. Sure the first two of those have been mostly obliterated these days, but the latter are fit and healthy and not going away any time soon.

What can we learn? Well, it’s not just about the technology, stoopid. The conditions for a technology to be adopted are technological, social, psychological, cultural and temporal. Pushing one of those levers alone probably won’t be enough. And timing is everything. Or serendipity, as I prefer to call it.

Keep that in mind next time that you are told that the next version will be the one that works.


3 thoughts on “Plus ça change

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