Invisible technology

An interesting thought I picked up today from the KK Lifestream blog.

As technology becomes ubiquitous it also becomes invisible. The more chips proliferate, the less we will notice them. The more networking succeeds, the less we’ll be aware of it.

In the early 1900s, at the heroic stage of the industrial economy, motors were changing the world. Big, heavy motors ran factories and trains and the gears of automation. If big motors changed work, they were sure to change the home, too. So the 1918 edition of the Sears, Roebuck catalog featured the Home Motor–a five-pound electrical beast that would “lighten the burden of the home.” This single Home Motor would supply all the power needs of a modern family. Also for sale were plug-ins that attached to the central Home Motor: an egg beater device, a fan, a mixer, a grinder, a buffer. Any job that needed doing, the handy Home Motor could do. Marc Weiser, a scientist at Xerox, points out that the electric motor succeeded so well that it became invisible. Eighty years later nobody owns a Home Motor. We have instead dozens of micro-motors everywhere. They are so small, so embedded, and so common that we are unconscious of their presence. We would have a hard time just listing all the motors whirring in our homes today (fans, clocks, water pumps, video players, watches, etc.). We know the industrial revolution succeeded because we can no longer see its soldiers, the motors.

Computer technology is undergoing the same disappearance. If the information revolution succeeds, the standalone desktop computer will eventually vanish. Its chips, its lines of connection, even its visual interfaces will submerge into our environment until we are no longer conscious of their presence (except when they fail). As the network age matures, we’ll know that chips and glass fibers have succeeded only when we forget them. Since the measure of a technology’s success is how invisible it becomes, the best long-term strategy is to develop products and services that can be ignored.

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