I’m currently reading Tim Harford’s excellent new tome Fifty Things that made the Modern Economy. Based on his BBC Radio series, it charts ideas and objects that have created the world around us today. Some of them are obvious (the Light Bulb), some of them less so (the Billy Bookcase).
In his description of the dynamo, he reminded me of the observation that has been with me some time that the pace at which technology changes is rarely matched by the pace at which human society adapts to take full advantage. With electrification, it took many decades before manufacturing companies realised that the electric motor required a fundamental redesign of how factories were structured and staffed before any real gains were made in terms of how they became fundamentally more productive.
My own personal favourite example of this slow pace of human change is the gap between the invention of the internal combustion engine-powered car, and the introduction in the UK of our first out of town shopping centre (for the record, Brent Cross in North West London, in 1976). It took a mere 91 years between the innovation in technology and a fundamental rethinking of how retail might adapt.
As I look around the office space in which I am currently sitting, I don’t see something that is all that different to the first office in which I worked in the early 1990s. Sure, the big bulky CRT monitors have been replaced by the relatively sleek lines of the LED flat screens. but otherwise, the desks, the lighting, the chairs… it hasn’t really changed that much. Fewer ties being worn, perhaps. That’s about it.
The software and hardware that we use, however, is fundamentally different. I’m am connected at a global scale. I am not tethered by network cables. The world’s information is at my fingertips. Back in 1993 I couldn’t even send an email outside of my organisation, let alone use the still nascent World Wide Wide. A phone was something that was used exclusively for speaking to people. My ties were, quite frankly, horrible.
If 91 years is a yardstick for the progress of societal change with technology, we are but 66 years into the business computing revolution. In 1951 J Lyons and Co (the tea company) introduced the world’s first business computer, LEO. The first few decades were very slow. By the end of the 1990s, Bill Gates’ vision of a “Computer on every desk” had become a reality. But they still sit there, on desks.
When it comes to the Internet, we are even shorted into the game. The first successful message sent on the ARPANET wasn’t until 1969 – a little under 48 years ago. Commercial use at scale is only a couple of decades old at most.
It’s inevitable that we are in a state of transition and confusion. We haven’t worked out how near-free, near limitless global computing power might change our society, our work, our lives. We are just scratching the surfaces of these changes, despite how it might somehow seem that things have already changed dramatically.
But, as the American scholar Laurence Lessig says, “The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.”
We have to do things in the future because there are things that we do today that require certain tools, certain approaches, certain technologies. We limit ourselves in the paperless office by the constraints of the A4 sheet. We are bounded by tools that were invented to automate the accounting practices of the 1400s. The past always tries to exert an iron grip on the future.
Challenging these norms and established practices is hard. Heretical, even. But we are still in the early days of the computing revolution, no matter what the hype might tell us.