Issue No. 06 - Nov.-Dec. (2011 vol. 13)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MITP.2011.107
Thomas Jepsen , IT consultant
As technology professionals, we tend to think in terms of paradigm changes and dramatic breakthroughs—in other words, what will be the next big thing? The last few decades have certainly brought their share of dramatic changes in technology—the PC, Internet, mobile phone, and smartphone. So it's natural to wonder—what's next?
Looking at the history of technological innovation, you begin to see a pattern. A technology is developed that changes how people live. Over a period of time, the technology remains essentially the same, with perhaps a few minimal changes. Then, suddenly, somebody comes up with a radically different technology that quickly makes the previous technology obsolete.
Evolutionary biologists call this punctuated equilibrium. The term was first used in a paper by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge in 1972. 1 Gould and Eldridge noticed that, judging from the fossil record, species tended to exhibit little change over long periods of time and then to suddenly morph into something radically different. In their paper, they referred to the long period without significant change as "stasis" and the sudden change as a "morphological discontinuity." It's not hard to see parallels in the technology world.
Consider, for example, the telephone. For most of the 20th century, the telephone handset didn't change much; eventually the rotary dial was replaced by a touchpad, and you could order a phone in colors other than black, but the functionality of the device remained much the same. Then, suddenly, toward the end of century, the cell phone emerged. This new, invasive species quickly took over the habitat of the traditional landline telephone, and after crossbreeding with the handheld computer and wireless Internet, yet another species emerged—the smartphone.
What causes these technological leaps? Again, we can learn from the biologists. Changes in the environment can make life difficult for the old species and more favorable for the emerging species. Many paleontologists believe that a meteor impact 60 million years ago led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and the emergence of mammals. Similarly, changes in the regulatory environment—specifically, the deregulation of the telephone industry in the 1980s—have contributed to the decline of the landline telephone and rise of the mobile phone.
However, not all emerging species adapt successfully to a new environment. While humans, dogs, and cats have done well from an evolutionary standpoint, sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths have not—having long since gone extinct. Similarly, not all "next big thing" technologies have survived the test of time. Although the cell phone has found its environmental niche, some of its contemporaries—like quadraphonic stereo, eight-track tapes, and citizens' band radio—have been relegated to a dusty corner in the museum of forgotten technology.
So what makes a new species successful? Part of it lies in the genes. Inheriting strong "technology DNA" from its ancestors is an important factor in technological success. While a cell phone differs from its ancestor (the landline phone) in both form and function, it relies on the robust protocols and operational practices developed over decades in the telephone industry. The smartphone similarly exploits a computing architecture that was first used in mainframe computers and that evolved over decades as the components got smaller and more efficient.
Another factor is the voice of the visionary or entrepreneur. Personalities like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs certainly contributed to the success of the home PC and smartphone through their ability to translate a vision into a practical reality that consumers could understand. Yet personality and vision alone aren't enough to change the world. Consider, for example, the Segway personal transport vehicle, designed by an equally gifted visionary; contrary to the early hype it generated, it has had only a marginal impact on how we move around in the city.
Historians of technology argue about whether technological change is inevitable and predetermined, or if it just happens by accident. The answer is probably a little of both. Humans are inventive by nature, and this is one of the key factors in our success as a species. Yet many of the technologies that humans rely on every day—from cooking food over a fire to the microwave oven—were discovered by accident.
Whether technological change is inevitable or not, one of the main challenges facing us today is understanding the impact that technology has on the environment. While technology has certainly improved our lives as individuals, it can also have unanticipated consequences for the environment and for everyone living on the planet. A good example is the impact that hydrocarbon emissions have had on the atmosphere; while the petroleum-based technologies of the industrial age brought material prosperity to many, it also created a new problem that we're only beginning to understand—global warming.
Returning to the original question about the next big thing: are we entering a period of stasis, or can we expect more dramatic changes? It's hard to tell. As Niels Bohr said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future."
Consider, for example, Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corporation, who stated in 1977 that "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home." Five years later, his company was manufacturing home computers. Needless to say, it's wise to be cautious about making predictions.
But sometimes the prognosticators hit a home run. On New Years' Day, 1901, the editors of the New York Times tried to guess what the next big technological advance would be in the 20th century. "The electric telegraph and the telephone serve our need, but no longer excite anybody's wonder," they noted. "Indeed, we chafe already under their manifest defects." 2 What the editors of the Times thought was going to be the next big thing was some work by an Italian named Marconi, who claimed he could send messages through the air using invisible radio waves: "Signor Marconi has gone far enough in his experiments with wireless telegraphy to give rise to the conjecture … that the art of communicating thought and speech by electricity is in its almost helpless infancy; but that belongs to another century." Within the year, Marconi succeeded in sending radio messages across the Atlantic.
Still, as noted previously, discretion is the better part of valor when making predictions about the future. However, there are currently some emerging technologies that show great promise. One is quantum computing, which should lead to tremendous increases in computing speed and power, enabling problems previously considered unsolvable to be tackled. Another is bioinformatics, which uses the tools of computing and IT to decode the human genome and understand the origins of disease. Will one of these be the next big thing? Only time will tell.
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Thomas Jepsen is an IT consultant and historian of technology. His research interests include healthcare informatics (21st century) and telegraphy (19th century). Jepsen received a BA from the University of Colorado and did graduate work at North Carolina State University. He is past chair, IEEE-USA Medical Technology Policy Committee; current chair, IEEE Eastern North Carolina Section Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society; and a member of the Society for the History of Technology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.