Alchemical futures

Founder’s myopia

Just before Christmas, John Lanchester had a good essay in the LRB, Let us Pay, ‘on the future of the newspaper industry’. It dealt very well with the crippling expense and economics of the physical product and all that that means (something Horace Dediu also tackled late last year — ‘one wit remarked that a newspaper is nothing more than an instrument that permits the depreciation of a printing plant’).

Here’s something from Lanchester’s piece that I’d not heard before (it’s probably very well known):

In some ways, the story of text messaging is a parable for the way the net has evolved. SMS messaging was taken up by Nokia in Finland as a way of allowing engineers to communicate short, factual messages about where they were, what they were doing and how long it would take. Nokia then made the service available on their phones, since, well, there it was, so you might as well let the punters have a go. They were amazed to see the spike in data traffic which suddenly showed up. The reason: Finnish teenagers were using SMS to organise their social lives. From there, texting hasn’t looked back. Nobody decided what the purpose of SMS would be, it just evolved.

(He goes on: ‘It would be hard to deny that texting is a new thing; also hard to argue that it has fundamentally changed the world. I’d say that’s roughly where we are with the journalistic uses of the new media. Their democratising and decentralising effects have barely begun, and aren’t going to go away.’ Both he and Dediu — ‘the medium needs its Orson Welles’ — look ahead to the Murdoch online-only paper, the Daily.)

And here’s Janet Abbate on email (Inventing the Internet, pp 106–111):

Email (initially called “net notes” or simply “mail”) made an inconspicuous entry onto the ARPANET scene. Since many time sharing systems provided ways for users to send messages to others on the same computer, personal electronic mail was already a familiar concept to many ARPANET users. By mid 1971 … several ARPANET sites had begun experimenting with ideas for simple programs that would transfer a message from one computer to another and place it in a designated “mailbox” file. … Email quickly became the network’s most popular and influential service, surpassing all expectations. … From ARPA email began to spread to the rest of the military, and by 1974 “hundreds” of military groups were using the ARPANET for email …

The popularity of email was not foreseen by the ARPANET’s planners. Roberts had not included electronic email in the original blueprint for the network. In fact, in 1967 he had called the ability to send messages between users “not an important motivation for a network of scientific computers” … Yet the idea of electronic mail was not new. MIT’s CTSS computer had had a message feature as early as 1965, and mail programs were common in the time sharing computers that followed …

Why then was the popularity of email such a surprise? … The rationale for building the network had focused on providing access to computers rather than to people. … The paradigm of resource sharing may have blinded the ARPANET community to other potential uses of the network. … Email and mailing lists were crucial to creating and maintaining a feeling of community among ARPANET users. … Even more important, mailing lists allowed a virtual community to take on an identity that was more than the sum of the individuals who made it up … [providing] a way for people to “meet” and interact on the basis of shared interests, rather than relying on physical proximity …

In the process of using the network, the ARPANET community developed a new conception of what networking meant. … the network planners … did not anticipate that people would turn out to be the network’s most valued resources. Network users challenged the initial assumptions, voting with their packets by sending a huge volume of electronic mail but making relatively little use of remote hardware and software. Through grassroots innovations and thousands of individual choices, the old idea of resource sharing that had propelled the ARPANET project forward was gradually replaced by the idea of the network as a means for bringing people together. Email laid the groundwork for creating virtual communities through the network. Increasingly, people within and outside the ARPA community would come to see the ARPANET not as a computing system but rather as a communications system. Succeeding generations of networks inspired by ARPANET would be designed from the start to act as communications media. By embracing email, ARPANET users gave the network a new purpose and initiated a significant change in the theory and practice of networking.

We teach about the unexpected rise of email in our first year ICT course — adding in, for good measure, John Vittal’s 1975 addition of Reply and Forward. We also point out that no-one foresaw the appeal of SMS, but it’s lovely to be able to include that story from Finland.

And here’s something else in the same vein (again centring on our love of communication) that makes a point about invention. I’m reading Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, and early on there’s this about the early American rural telephone companies (chapter 3):

The Independents, rooted in the farms and small towns of the West, were innovators, but of a conceptual kind, not the technical kind à la Alexander Bell. They saw a different world, in which the telephone was made cheaper and more common, a tool of mass communications, and an aid in daily life. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce, but as the first social technology. As one farmer captured it in 1904, ‘With a telephone in the house, comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.’

Typically, the rural telephone systems were giant party lines, allowing a whole community to chat with or listen to one another. Obviously there was no privacy, but there were benefits to communal telephony other than secure person-to-person communications. Farmers would use the telephone lines to carry their own musical performances. …

And so, while the Bell Company may have invented the telephone, it clearly didn’t perceive the full spectrum of its uses. This is such a common affliction that we might name it “founder’s myopia”. Again and again in the development of technology, full appreciation of an invention’s potential importance falls to others—not necessarily technical geniuses themsleves—who develop it in ways that the inventor never dreamed of. The phenomenon is hardly mystical: the inventor, after all, is but one person, with his own blind spots, while there are millions, if not billions, of others with eyes to see new uses that had been right under the inventor’s nose. … it was simple farmers in the early 1900s who pioneered the  use of the phone line for broadcasting long before the rise of radio broadcasting in the 1920s.