Humanity very rarely realizes the impact of world-changing information technologies when they are first conceived. For the past 5,000 years, it’s often the inventors’ force of optimism, combined with sweat and blood, that has powered innovation through the haters of the day.
Recently, Salon’s professional tech critic, Andrew Leonard, rekindled a common criticism of Silicon Valley founders, quoting a phrase from data scientist Hilary Mason: “There’s something deeply disturbing about the construction of these ‘change the world’ narratives around trivial products.”
Mason is at least partly correct: Internet founders are a group obsessed with the idea of creating world-changing products. Noted venture capitalists from Founders Fund advise startups by telling them to literally “start by trying to change the world.”
Do apps primarily designed to solve the problems of yuppie 20-somethings really have some greater impact? The short answer is that we really don’t know about the current crop of tech products. We do know that many products that do end up changing the world are rarely recognized.
Here are three “trivial” products that ended up having a big impact.
The first tablet
Much like today’s tablets, writing at length on the world’s first tablets was a pain in the neck. Fire-hardened clay tablets were really only convenient for scribbles and straight lines, just enough for simple accounting with graphic symbols and tick marks. “Words, in a sense, began with numbers,” writes Peter Watson in his superb book “Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud.”
One of the earliest tablets uncovered in northern Iraq, near the site of the first big city, Mesopotamia (circa 2,000 BC), was marked with “Counters representing small cattle: 21 ewes that lamb, 6 female lambs, 8 full-grown male sheep.” In the beginning, writing was mostly for simple accounting. Glorified spreadsheets, really.
Not exactly world-changing stuff at the time.
The printing press
When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1436, literacy was far from universal, and church authorities were the go-to source of biblical interpretation. When Gutenberg brought his design for a printing press to be manufactured, skeptical workers reportedly balked, “But it is just simply a press that you are asking me for, Master Hans!”
Guttenberg’s reply was, “It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams … . Through it, God will spread His Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men.”
For decades after its invention, printing was a closely regulated practice. Both kings and clergy had forbidden innovation generally, including novel spins on prayer books and song [PDF].
Few beyond Gutenberg saw the world-changing power of his invention.
In 1816, Francis Ronald invented one of the earliest electrical telegraphs. In his description, he hoped that “the most extraordinary fluid or agency, electricity, may actually be employed for a more practically useful purpose than the gratification of the philosophers’ inquisitive research, the schoolboy’s idle amusement, or the physician’s tool; that it may be compelled to travel as many hundred miles beneath our feet as the subterranean ghost which nightly haunts our metropolis.”
Unfortunately, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, the military powers declared that “telegraphs of any kind are now totally unnecessary, and no other than one now in use will be adopted.” And it wasn’t just military generals. Fifty years after Ronald, Henry David Thoreau would warn that mini-messaging technologies were good for nothing but celebrity gossip.
For a time, wireline communication had an audience scant bigger than the military and enterprise users. Not until the telephone and Internet did wireline communications “change the world.”
The uses of most major Internet companies balloon far beyond what their original inventors ever imagined. Mark Zuckerberg probably never thought a tool to help college kids share photos would boost turnout in presidential elections, dramatically increase organ donations, and replace the front page of newspapers.
The Google founders probably never thought their simple search tool would predict flu outbreaks. Nor did they foresee their algorithms as the basis for the next generation of artificial intelligence.
I do know this: Virtually every major company, and many minor companies, do have a world-changing complex. From the beginning, Google’s mission was to “organize the world’s information.”
Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Square — they all began with a wild utopian fantasy in the power of information. Ninety percent will do nothing on a global scale. But a few founders will create something extraordinary. And, as we’ve seen throughout history, wild optimism may be the only thing that ever creates world-changing ideas.