How World-Shaking Technologies Shake the World

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2018

(power point)


A new technology is not world shaking when it starts, it is a new idea that is looking for a way to be useful enough that people will invest time and money in developing it. This first use the "commodity use". If the technology is hot, people using it will discover interesting "surprise uses" and those are the world shaking uses.

a Roger White presentation

The road to world-shaking

World shaking technologies begin as hot ideas. But there are many steps between a hot idea and a world-shaking implementation. This discussion is about a common route from one to the other. If you understand this then you can make your writing about hot new inventions more realistic.

My personal experience with this process involved a couple of different technologies. The first was pioneering personal computers, the second was pioneering local area networks -- ways of connecting personal computers in a room or building before the internet became pervasive. I started the fourth retail personal computer store in Utah and I worked at Novell from its startup to ten years later when it had become the industry leader with a billion in sales.

The road to world shaking I will be describing is from "hot idea", to "commodity use", to "surprise use". It is the surprise use that is the world-shaking one.

OK... What is it good for?

The first step in world shaking is coming up with a hot idea. The next step is presenting that hot idea to people who will invest time and money in developing it into something tangible. The investors first question is, "OK... Sounds interesting... What is it good for?" This last part -- "What is it good for?" -- is the key question that must be answered if time, money and interest are going to flow.

The most common answer is, "It will replace an existing product by doing its task faster, better and cheaper." This is the commodity use.

Some examples of this happening are:

o The first voice recorders were designed to allow businessmen to do dictation when no secretary was available.

o The first steam engines were designed to replace workers who were manning pumps that pulled water out of mines.

o The first digital computers were designed to calculate artillery trajectory tables. These replaced offices full of women doing tedious arithmetic.

o The first use of writing was as a memory aid for keeping track of contracts such as bride price agreements.

What these tasks accomplished was letting the technology get developed. Investors were willing to pay money while the kinks and surprises associated with these hot ideas were worked out and functioning tools were created.

In the case of world-shaking technologies what happened next was the surprising part. Other people looked at what had been created and thought, "You know... with a little modification I can do something a lot more interesting with that tool." As these other uses were developed, and the market for these tools grew, the prices for them kept getting lower and lower, and their features kept getting more impressive. This became a virtuous cycle, and out of this cycle came the world-shakers.

In the above cases here is what followed:

o People discovered that those voice recorders could also record music. It turned out lots more people wanted to listen to music than listen to dictations. This became the music recording industry.

o People discovered that steam engines could pull around railroad cars, and push around ships, and do lots of other engine work. These became the automating-using-steam engines industries and the Age of Steam came into full flower.

o People discovered that digital computers could do accounting, and record keeping, and... Wow! So much more! One specific example of a surprise social change was the emergence of what came to be called "conglomerate" businesses in the 1960's. This happened because people would buy a business and then use minicomputers to automate the accounting department. "What kind of business does this work for? ...Lots of kinds!" hence the conglomerates.

o People discovered that writing could keep track of all sorts of other things. Two of these that became wildly popular were writing how-to instruction manuals and recording story telling.

These are examples of the surprise uses of these technologies. These are the world shaking uses. This model can be used in some surprising places. This next is an example of that.

The biggest surprise: strong language skill

One of the surprising examples of this pattern comes from Mother Nature and evolution.

Most animals have language skill of some nature. One of the characteristics that distinguishes humanity is strong language skill.

What is the commodity use of language?

It is alerting other nearby members of the species that something important is happening. The most notable is "Danger!" of some sort. The difference between a generic animal's signaling of danger and human signaling danger is the richness of detail.

"Squawk!" says danger in a typical animal.

"Watch out! Behind that tree over there, tomorrow, there's gonna be a big guy with a big club." says danger in a human. It is saying danger in a faster, better and cheaper way.

What is the surprise use that humans have developed around this strong language skill?

The surprise use is teaching. This makes a huge difference. One of the biggest differences is that neat inventions can be passed on to younger generations. The surprise difference that this makes is that the big brain gets valuable. If you use your big brain to come up with a theory of gravity, and it dies with you because you don't have teaching, that big brain isn't worth much.

What this means is that strong language skill is what allowed humanity's big brain to become valuable.

Edison and Tesla

Discovering how to come up with these commodity first uses is not an easy task. Let's talk next about two people who were in that business and compare their successes: Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla.

Edison and Tesla were both big in the hot idea marketplace in the 1880's and they worked together for a while at Edison's company. Both generated lots of hot ideas. The difference was Edison was a master at creating commodity uses for those hot ideas. His companies produced thousands of patents and hundreds of new products that were commercial successes, one of them being the voice recorder mentioned earlier. His slogan was, "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."

Tesla dreamed just as big and was able to communicate his dreams in exciting ways. He had a couple of spectacular successes but he was nowhere near as good at coming up with commodity first uses as Edison was so his successes remained a handful rather than a bushel basketful.

The Enrico Fermi Experience

This "commodity first then surprise world shaker later" is a pattern. There are exceptions. One famous one is Enrico Fermi and the Manhattan Project team during World War Two. The hot idea here was harnessing nuclear energy and their first use was the world-shaking nuclear bomb.

It turns out this illustrates a different pattern: That with hot new technologies making a destructive version is often simpler and quicker to accomplish than making a constructive version, so the damage-doer often comes first.

How to use this in your writing

There is a strong tendency to use the Enrico Fermi pattern in fiction writing. Most "Mad Scientist" stories are following this pattern. It is popular because it is simple and spectacular.

But there are ways of making the commodity-then-surprise pattern work in a story too. Here are some examples:

o An inventor has developed a commodity use and walks out of his factory in a satisfied way. Outside he sees a customer using the product, but he's using it in a way the inventor hadn't thought of, but is really neat! The inventor watches for a while, then rushes back in and starts redesigning his product so it is better adapted to this surprise use.

o An inventor can envision the world shaking use, but making that form is soo expensive! No one will back him. He researches, has an Ah-Hah!, and comes up with a much simpler commodity use that replaces an existing product but does it faster, better and cheaper. That he can get financing for, and as the money rolls in he can then finance the world-shaking application.


Next come some exercises. With these take a minute to think about the exercise, then take another minute to talk about it with your neighbor. That done, we will take a couple examples for whole group discussion. Here are the exercises:

oo -- Think of an existing hot idea, one that is in the real world and currently exists. What was the hot idea? What is the world shaking use? Now, tougher, do you know what its first commodity use was?

oo -- Think of an Enrico Fermi example: a hot idea that becomes a world shaker on its first application.

oo -- Think of a hot idea in some existing entertainment franchise (Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, etc.) and what is its surprise use? What was its commodity use. Example from The Last Jedi, at the end of the movie: the surprise use of FTL drive is to carve up an enemy ship protected by shields.

oo -- Think of one of your hot ideas. What is its world-shaking use. What can you come up with as a commodity use for it?



In Mad Scientist story telling the hot idea becomes a world-shaking product in one fell swoop. In the real world it is usually a two step process. The first step is turning the hot idea into a commodity product that replaces an existing product but does its job faster, better and cheaper. After the hot idea becomes established and familiar as a commodity product, then the surprise use is discovered and this becomes the world-shaking use. This is the more common evolution of a hot idea. If you want your story's world-shakers to be more realistic have your hot ideas go through this two-step process.



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