Twice today I’ve referred people to an article I wrote back in 2014 entitled “Is it really happening so quickly?”. The gist of the piece was a retort to the often-heard claim that things these days are happening ever so much faster than they ever have done.
In the article I resorted to using actual data to show that the exponential growth curves of things like Facebook don’t actually look all that much different to those of things like the home PC. The challenge is that if you only start looking at an exponential growth curve when it’s going gang busters then you will end up thinking the world is a scary, confusing and “all of a sudden” kind of place. Sure Facebook looks like a massively quick emerging thing, but if you step back and say that electronic social networks started with The WELL in the 1970s, and also lived and engaged in the BBS movement in the 1980s, then it doesn’t look that quick at all really…
The tech industry isn’t very good at looking back, though. It’s really not in its DNA, which is a shame. Not only because by not looking back we can get bamboozled into thinking overnight successes didn’t happen over 20 years or more, but also because we then also have a habit of making the same old mistakes time and time again. You know, like thinking you can make change happen simply by introducing some new technology into a situation. That assumption that has worked oh so many times in the past.
It’s not that I believe that technology can’t be a catalyst for change – it obviously can. It’s much more that the changes usually will take an awful lot longer that we might first hope, and also that that change doesn’t happen the moment a technology reaches a certain threshold of user penetration. Social networks, for example, were a forty-year overnight success. And we still don’t what changes they’ll affect because we’re still just at the beginning.