The last couple hundred years have been defined by technological progress. You can’t think about the early 20th century without thinking about biplanes and Ford Model T cars, or about the 1960s without thinking about the space race and the first lunar landing.
But I think this view of history, where we see the big, world-changing, popular technologies as the most important ones is sort of backwards.
For example, looking at the last 20 years, you might say that the smartphone is one of the technologies that has had the biggest impact by far on how we live. After that, you might consider the electric car. But neither of those would actually exist without a much, much more boring technology – lithium-ion batteries.
We think about technology in terms of consumer-facing stuff. That might be Walkmans and TV sets, it might be video game consoles or cars, commercial jet aircraft and so forth.
But underlying all of those are a series of technologies that are less immediately sexy than electric sports cars or flying first class to Paris.
Lithium-ion batteries, for example, have been around for a while. They were invented in the 1980s, and the first commercial versions came out in the 1990s.
That allowed the cellphone market to go mainstream.
If you remember 1980s phones, they were giant bricks, packed with older, heavier batteries.
And there are countless small innovations to the battery design that have made them lighter, able to store more juice, faster at charging, and cheaper. Those built up over time until we could use them to run a car.
So which is more important – the battery or the smartphone?
Without the battery, we’d still be plunking a quarter into the payphone.
My theory right now is that the technologies that are the most genuinely world-changing aren’t the end-use products. They’re the back-end stuff that sits underneath the hype and dazzle.
We’ve spent the last 25 years making celebrities of CEOs and tech startup founders who were giving us flashy toys – sports cars, pinging phones, social media sites, and so on. A lot of those things wound up disappointing, annoying, or being actively hostile to our privacy, attention spans, and even democracy.
Meanwhile, can you name off the top of your head one CEO who runs a company that makes wind turbines, or electric car chargers (no fair picking on Elon Musk!) or solar panels?
The one medical technology CEO who everyone knew the name of was Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. But Theranos was the ultimate expression of publicity-seeking commercialized tech – and it turned out to be a scam. Meanwhile, there’s the folks who worked on actually useful stuff, like mRNA vaccines that turned out to be really handy for that global pandemic we’re just barely crawling out of? They can go pick up groceries without anyone recognizing them.
My theory now?
Real innovation is boring. And that’s fine.
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