Technology Revolutions

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2015


The inventions mankind has produced have brought revolutions to how humans live. This section is about the pattern of how those changes caused by inventions -- physical, procedural and intellectual -- affect cultures and lifestyles.

Commodity Use and Surprise Use

When a new technology or technique is first discovered ("technology" will cover both concepts from here on) the red-hot question is, "What is it good for? How are people going to use this?" and the first answer is usually, "We will replace an existing product or service, but do it faster, better and cheaper." I will call this the "commodity use" of a technology. (this is my term, it is not widely used) If that first use succeeds then the new technology gets interesting, interesting in the sense that many people will pay attention to it.

If this new technology is world changing, truly revolutionary, what follows is discovering other uses, surprise uses, for the technology, as in, "You can do that with it too? Now that is truly neat!" When that happens the technology becomes history-making. I will call this the "surprise use" of a technology. (once again, my term)

Lets look at this pattern of how a neat new technology changes the world we live in.

The Commodity Use

The commodity use of a new technology is the first use it is adapted to. Most of the time that use is replacing what an older technology does, but doing it faster, better and cheaper. Here are some examples:

o One class of pioneering purchasers of automobiles was doctors. They bought them because it was a lot easier to get a car started for midnight house call than it was to wake up a horse at that hour and harness it to a carriage.

o The first use for writing was accounting. Writing was a lot more reliable at remembering the details of important agreements over decades than pure human memory was.

If no commodity use is found for a new technology, it withers and is quietly forgotten. A legendary example of this is Nikola Tesla and his idea for wireless transmission of electricity. He could never find a use for this where it was faster, better and cheaper than existing electrical transmitting technologies, so it never spread widely. Instead the Tesla Coil became a science curiosity, not a useful product.

The Surprise Uses

The commodity use establishes a new technology as valuable. The big virtue of this is that it starts getting used widely. This raises awareness in the wider community and cuts the production costs.

For those products that are winners, as this newfangled technology spreads more people are using it, and these new users discover other neat ways of using the technologies. Using the above examples:

o Cars were found to be good for much more than midnight house calls. They replaced horse and carriage for all kinds of commodity activities. And there were some surprises too. One of the surprise uses was drive-in movies. Another was driving from a nice house in a suburb to a nice job downtown in a city center.

o The number of other uses found for writing turns out to be mind-boggling. One of the more imagination-firing was airplanes doing sky writing.

Other examples

Here are a couple more examples:

o The commodity use of digital computers was to replace humans doing mind-numbingly simple math to calculate artillery trajectory tables during World War II. These first machines were designed by IBM, and in that use the total market was projected to be... about eight. But once the machine's math doing ability was recognized, and the manufacturing price started dropping, then the accounting uses and other more surprising uses came along.

o The first commodity use for plastic happened in the 1850's. It was to make pool balls faster, better and cheaper than the existing ones which were made out of ivory. It was neat, but this was a case of an invention that didn't lead to a revolution -- nothing surprising followed. It was ninety years later before the production techniques for plastics got good enough, fast enough and cheap enough to start their widespread use. One of those first uses of the 1940's was making phonograph records. Once these 1940's uses were established, plastics began to be made in many different ways and their uses have been spreading steadily into many surprising areas ever since.

o Even evolution provides an example: humans developing strong language skill.

Most animals can communicate, but the range of what they can say to each other is quite limited compared to what humans can say to each other. A bird can tweet, "Danger!" as an example. By comparison, a human can tell another human, "Tomorrow, about 5PM, behind that tree over there, there will be a tall man with a big club. Watch out for him! He's trouble!" This is "Danger!" faster, better and cheaper.

The surprise use for strong language skill is teaching -- in particular, adult humans can teach children humans of the following generations all sorts of interesting things.

The surprise effect of this strong teaching ability is that it alters human evolution. Without strong teaching ability, neat ideas die with the animal/person who thinks of them -- which means they aren't worth very much in helping the species survive. With strong teaching, neat ideas can spread widely and be passed down from generation to generation. This means... the big human brain became valuable because humans developed strong language skill, not vice versa. It is a surprising ramification.


New technologies are at the heart of what makes humans human. Since the Agricultural Age began humans have been changing their lives by incorporating new inventions and techniques into their daily routines.

How these new ideas are brought in follows a pattern. The new technology first replaces an older technology by doing what it does faster, cheaper and better. If it succeeds at that it becomes widespread. If it is a history-making technology, then after it does that surprise uses will be found, and those are the exciting ones.

All-in-all an exciting process, and one that has become much more rapid as mankind moves further into the Industrial Age.


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