The Technology Forest: Don’t Get Lost in the Woods

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Believe it or not, there is a somewhat timely pattern to the historical disruption caused by technology advances. Let’s call the individual technology advances the trees, and the profound business and societal impacts from those advances the forest.

Individually, these advances may not do much to challenge the status quo, but together, in a compressed timeline, they can radically change the business and social landscape to create a whole new timberland.

These periods may seem to occur at random times, but they, in fact, occur about every 20 years it seems, dating back 150 years. They don’t occur as predictably as Haley’s Comet, perhaps; maybe more like generational pop music crazes.

And we’re clearly at the beginning of the latest of these series of generational technology disruption periods. Taking a look at where we’ve come from may make it easier to recognize what is next on the horizon.

Bunches of Disruptions

The first society-reshaping technologies were actually one-offs, and therefore impossible for contemporaries to forecast the effects of —James Watt’s steam engine in 1781, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1794, Robert Fulton’s steam boat in 1807, and Samuel Morse’s telegraph in 1844. But after that it all came in clusters of inventions briefly outlined here.

1876-1879

  • Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Thomas Edison’s twin pillars, the phonograph and the incandescent light. It was obvious even to the non-techies of the time how the eventual exploitation, innovations and maturity of these three inventions would remake daily society more profoundly than any before them.

1895-1899

  • The Niagara Falls power plant; Marconi’s first wireless telegraphy patents; construction of first cathode ray tube by Karl Ferdinand Braun; Discovery of the electron by Joseph Thompson; patenting of radio remote control by Nikola Tesla; invention of magnetic audio recording by Valdemar Poulsen inventing magnetic audio recording.

1919-1925

  • The explosion of radio, the electrification of the gramophone, Philo T. Farnsworth sketching out all-electronic television and Vladimir Zworykin filing of patents for his TV components, the first audio recording using electronic microphones, and the founding of that supreme well-spring of innovation, Bell Labs.

1947-1948

  • Invention of the transistor, the introduction of audio tape recording, the re-introduction of television, the first electronic computers running stored programs and the invention of the 33 RPM album and 45 RPM “single.”

1977-1979 (30 years later)

  • Invention of the personal computer, the VCR coupled with the creation of the home video industry, the launch of the first GPS satellite, and the introduction of the Sony Walkman and portable music.

1997-1998

  • Digital and high-definition TV, the DVD, consumer-priced digital cameras, the invention of the flip phone and the cellphone camera, the first PDAs, the first large/wide/flatscreen TV, adoption of the first Wi-Fi specification and the formation of the Bluetooth SIG.

Today’s Technological Troop

And now we’re at the cusp of a new era which will be every bit as impactful as the previous eras. Recently, we’ve explored here the next iteration of cellular network technology (5G) (“Something Is Happening But We Don’t Know What It Is“), Wi-Fi Mesh (“Wireless Internet Infrastructure: Is It Ready For The Connected World?“) and home robots (“I, CES Robot“).

Add to these recent developments these additional emerging technologies:

  • Mainstreaming of VR and AR
  • Recent adoption of next-generation terrestrial TV (ATSC 3.0) and the coming roll-out of broadcast/cable 4K TV
  • Bluetooth Mesh, which will create universal, un-siloed and hubless whole-home smart home networks (which we’ll explore in a future post)
  • Driverless cars
  • Contextual voice command systems such as Google Home, Samsung’s Bixby and Amazon’s Echo corporate adoption of virtual currency (i.e. Bitcoin)

These may all seem like uniquely individual advancements but each of these forests are comprised of the same types of trees—more robust and wireless communication methods, more representational media and greater automation, to name a few.

And each era produces the same post-mortem inquiries:

  • Who were the winners and losers?
  • What were the intended and, especially, the unintended consequences?
  • Which new technologies intertwined or co-existed with existing ones?
  • How did business models change?
  • Which established entities thrived, merely survived or got ran over?
  • What new entities sprung up and succeeded in becoming established and which failed?

Answers to these questions can inspire insights and provide guidance in creating some order to this contemporary mish-mash of technology advancements. They may even provide you with a better understanding of the forest’s composition instead of getting lost in the woods.

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