Cars changed everything. Nowadays we indulge in conversations about fuel efficiency, alternative energies, or just going green and biking to work; all fine conversations to have but maybe it can be too easy for any car cynic to remember just how revolutionary they were. One of several modern transportation inventions, the car stands out over trains and airplanes because it is small, personal and democratic. I can ride a plane from Los Angeles to Australia, or take a train from Manhattan to Vermont, but I can drive my car to the grocery store, the theater, my friend’s house, the woods or anywhere I want. With a car person’s range increases tremendously, and the reach of businesses explodes. We say the Internet is the most important invention since the printing press, but don’t forget that early Internet metaphors referred to a Super Highway. If we want to say the 20th Century ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, (as some historians would have you do), then we can safely say the advent of automobiles, roads and highways was the Internet of the 20th Century.
Now, I’m not here to laud car usage for 1,000 words, nor am I here to ruffle the feathers of any bicycle enthusiasts, (of which I am one). No, the next observation is to consider the state of car-alternatives. For brevity, I will focus on the bicycle. Now, as a technology, bicycles owe nothing to cars. They predate cars, and borrow no aspects of the internal combustion engine, unless you wish to argue for vague notions of “modern engineering.” They even enjoy the same destination-versatility, (like cars, they take you “where ever you want to go”). However, in as much the bicycle performs as an effective mode of transport, it owes almost everything to the car: the paved infrastructure, the greater accessibility of businesses, the availability of bicycle parts and repair services – all of these are pushed by the automobile. The bicycle is better off than it would have been had we misfired on the rise of the automobile.
Perhaps the analogy to cars and bicycles doesn’t resonate with you, but more than likely the idea I floated last week about social networks supplanting your intra-office communication does. The primary contribution of revolutionary technologies is that they drive new infrastructure, and if you’re the sort who still scoffs at social media, you are ignoring that its immense popularity is shaping the infrastructure of the future. It’s reasonable that your present concern with social media is how you can leverage it as a business tool, but eventually the popularity of social media will be less important than the communication motifs it has helped create. It just might be that trying to connect with millions of facebook users is a waste of your time, but it is not absurd to think that we might repurpose the “what” of social media: public visibility of activity, public “wall” style communication, ease of embedding media, topic tracking, private communications both live, (chatting), and asynchronous, (messages/emails) – these are all sensible business technologies.
If you are a tech trend geek, then you would do well to look for these infrastructure moments – and be wary of trend claims that ignore this reality. My favorite among the latter is “The PC is dead”, bandied about in the wake of smart phones and tablets. These micro-psuedo-computers are certainly “the future” but touting them as PC killers is not unlike touting the bicycle as the automobile killer. Tablets are more affordable, better in some ways, and also less powerful and more narrowly designed. Smartphones are great, but they are the bicycles of the Internet. If everybody switched to bicycles tomorrow, we would still be wise to run this nation’s freight on the back of an internal combustion engine. Even as we see “mobile” versions of websites, (mere bike lanes), the PC still drives the infrastructure, and will continue to do so for some time. Thinking we are done with real computers because we have tablets now is sort of like saying we don’t need scientists any more because we have Popular Science Magazine.
I digress somewhat. The importance of something like a tablet is that we have more Internet users because we were able to give them a less obtuse computer. Computers are “for nerds” and somewhat correctly they will continue to be so – regular people can enjoy a smaller, pop-computer that specializes in the sort of things a regular person wants to do, (And it is too bad the car/bike analogy breaks down here). Tablets are great, but they are only as good as they are because they can use the infrastructure built by the computer.