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Monday, 03 September 2012 05:41

Exponential growth versus linear thinking


One of my favourite sayings comes from the late American futurist Roy Amara: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

He neatly describes the exponential effect of many technologies – slow at first, then accelerating to the extent that they cause enormous changes almost overnight.

This makes it impossible to make accurate predictions about technology. Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society said in 1895 that heavier than air flying machines were impossible. He also said that radio had no future and that X-rays would prove to be a hoax.

When Boeing built the ten seater 247 in 1933, it predicted that a larger plane would never be built. Charlie Chaplin thought that movies were a fad.

Tom Watson, snr, the founder of IBM, famously predicted that there was a world market for maybe five computers. Ken Olson, founder of Digital, said he could see no reason why anybody would want a computer in their home. Bill Gates said that “640 kilobytes should be enough for anybody”.

There are a number of fundamental laws behind technology development. The best known is Moore’s law, which basically predicts that processing power doubles every two years or so. The are other laws governing things like data storage capacity and bandwidth, all of which are reasonably consistent and which allow us to tell where the technology is headed.

But when many fast-evolving simple trends intersect, they do so in unpredictable ways, causing quantum shifts in the way technology is used and perceived.

This is such a common phenomenon that there are a number of terms to describe it. Tipping point, critical mass, snowball effect, inflection point, paradigm shift, etc. These occur when regular trends interact with each other to cause irregular effects.

The best example in the IT industry is the explosive growth of the Internet in the early 1990s. By the late 1980s Moore’s Law had ensured that PCs, after a slow start a decade earlier, had become a fixture on every knowledge worker’s desk, and in a reasonable percentage of homes.

Improvements in telecommunications saw the introduction of modems and the start of the widespread use of corporate email. In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee made the Internet easy to navigate using hyperlinks. in 1993 Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina invented Mosaic, the first web browser.

All the elements were in place. In 1994 Amazon was founded, and the number of websites grew by thousands of percent a year. It was the classic technology boom.

The Internet revolution changed the world in just a few years, yet no-one predicted it. The same thing has happened throughout history.

A combination of light but powerful internal combustion engines and advances in aeronautics saw man fly. The development of machine tools and a better understanding of physics saw in the steam engine and the industrial revolution. Radio, atomic warfare and energy, space travel, and social networking are all examples of major technology shifts that were inevitable in retrospect but impossible to predict beforehand.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the next decade or two. It is fun to postulate, but history shows us that we should not discount anything as being impossible.

Our minds evolve in a linear fashion, but the technology and its effects are exponential. The key to coming to terms with the future is to reconcile the two.

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire. He is one of Australia’s longest serving and most experienced IT journalists. He is author of the only definitive history of the Australian IT industry, ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing.’

He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time weekly IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.

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