Some Formative Sources of My Ideas About Technology

I was musing recently about things I’ve read or otherwise consumed that have stuck with me over the years, things that I keep finding myself coming back to as I work through various ideas about technology innovation and adoption. I thought I would share some long-time favorites–mostly because I think they’re inherently interesting, but also because it might provide some context for other things I write on this blog. Links are provided for the curious.

The first item, without question, is the BBC series Connections, by James Burke. I was in second grade when the first one aired on PBS, and I used to sneak out of bed at night to watch it from the end of the hall. I was utterly fascinated by the twists and turns by which a bit of technology gets adopted, then morphed in completely unforeseen directions. Everyday life can be the same for hundreds of years, then one day someone observes, say, that if you heat up sand enough in a certain kind of fire, you get a hard, translucent, malleable substance than can take on the shape of anything you put it in or around. Hundreds more years pass, and you get from decorative housewares to small windows in very grand buildings, and then a millenium or so later, someone notices the effects on the light traveling through it, and then all of a sudden in the space of a couple hundred years, you have eyeglasses, the microscope and the telescope. And then Science as we know it can really take off. How utterly random, and how amazing that one small insight, carefully pursued, can lead to such a vast explosion of other previously unthinkable possibilities. There were specific scenes and images in the series that stuck with me for 30 years, until I found it again on DVD. But the thing that I’ve carried most closely, that drives me professionally to this day, is the fascinating process of how ideas get transmitted across space and time, sometimes morphed by local cultural contexts and their unique material circumstances. And the big questions of why certain things catch on, sometimes briefly, sometimes for centuries, and others get ignored or fall by the wayside–sometimes to be picked up again generations later.

When I was in my early teens, my dad lamented one day that scientific journals and conferences are horribly predictable. “If you read the early proceedings of the Royal Society,” he said, “They published everything, whether their ideas and predictions panned out or not.” Some years later, in a 17th century lit class in college, I wound up reading just such things. In many cases, they’re what you’d get if you crossed a modern scientific paper with the Weekly World News, which isn’t all that surprising given that modern Science was barely out of its infancy in 1665. But the curiosity, sense of adventure and drive for knowledge come through in one paper after another. You imagine a bunch of people gathering in taverns and small, smoky drawing rooms to try to get a handle of the mechanics of the universe with the aid of copious amounts of ale. They’re all available online these days–every issue starting from 1665 (thanks, Internet!) if you feel like sitting down with those bewigged dandies with a few brews of your own to hand. I found myself remembering those texts when I went to the first OpenDaylight Summit this year. Let’s be real–the whole industry is making up this SDN thing as it goes along from one day to the next. Corporate entities like to stage-manage technology introductions to death, but at ODS–the code was still warm, the slides were being updated minutes before the sessions, a demo was as much an adventure for the presenter as for the audience–and it was awesome. Best event I’ve been to in a really, really long time.

The cover of my fifth grade math textbook–I’ll probably never find a picture of it, but it simply showed a model T and a modern sports car side by side on a field of grass. I have no idea what that had to do with fractions, but here’s what I took and carried with me from it: familiar forms limit our imaginations even as we innovate. Put another way, new innovations (small internal combustion engines, say) are most successful in terms of adoption when presented in familiar packages (19th century carriage forms). It’s partly why NFV has been adopted so much more quickly than controller-based SDN: people know what a VM is. They know how to operate a switch or a router or a firewall. Sending commands to a router in a VM isn’t a great mental leap. As long as the performance isn’t horrible, why not? It’s only once people get their heads around the possibilities that new technology could enable that the external form it takes becomes malleable (horseless carriage->low, ultra-sculpted sportscar). I grew up surrounded by people in the semiconductor industry and even having seen wafers at Intel Family Day, I never had any means of connecting these things to anything in my everyday life. Tech was completely abstract for me, which is why I spent my entire childhood firmly convinced I would never have anything to do with it (ha!). Then I worked in customer service one summer in college for Maxtor, the disk drive manufacturer. In the main lobby they had some drives in glass cases with their lids off–and that was when I realized they were just record players. Optical heads instead of needles, ok, but suddenly a cascade of recording history went through my head…followed by my fifth grade math cover. And I understood.

Finally, my admittedly highly idiosyncratic way of learning how computers actually operate. I don’t recommend that most people teach themselves classical Chinese first–I have no doubt there are more direct and efficient methods. But Mandarin Chinese was my fourth foreign language, and by that time I’d learned to spot the common patterns in how humans conceptualize, organize and articulate their ideas. It was pretty clear to me, too, that the simple fact that a very finite number of patterns exist across the vast range of human languages means that the mind can not be separated from the constraints of the brain, but is bounded by the organization of its physical substrate. On the one hand, that spurred an interest in neuroscience that I continue to pursue, if haphazardly, in my off hours. On the other, extending that same understanding to artificial intelligence was a very small leap; and my thinking about technology systems continues to be informed by what I’ve learned about human ones.

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