One of my favorite authors is Jared Diamond, a polymath which knowledge goes beyond books, education or instruction. In fact, Jared Diamond is an ecologist, geographer, biologist, anthropologist.
Whatever you want to label him, the truth is Jared Diamond is just one of the most curious people on earth. As we love to put a label on anything, we get impressed by as many labels one person has. However, Jared Diamond has been just a curious person looking for answers to compelling and hard questions about our civilization. The search for those answers has brought him to become an expert in many disciplines.
In fact, even though he might not know what’s the latest news about Google‘s algorithm update, Apple’s latest product launch or what features the new iPhone has, I believe Jared Diamond is the most equipped person to understand how the technological landscape evolves. Reason being Jared Diamond has been looking at historical trends in thousands of years and dozens of cultures and civilizations.
He’s also lived for short periods throughout his life with small populations, like New Guineans. In his book Guns, Germs & Steel there is an excerpt that tries to explain why western civilizations were so technologically successful and advanced compared to any other population in the world, say New Guinea.
For many in the modern, hyper-technological world, the answer seems trivial. With the advent of the digital world, even more. We love to read and get inspired every day by the incredible stories of geniuses and successful entrepreneurs that are changing the world.
Jared Diamond has a different explanation for how technology evolves and what influences its adoption throughout history, and it has only in part to do with the ability to make something that works better than what existed before.
Why the heroic theory of invention is flawed
If you read the accounts of many entrepreneurs that have influenced our modern society, those seem to resemble the stories of heroes, geniuses, and original thinkers. In short, if we didn’t have Edison, Watt, Ford, and Carnegie the western world wouldn’t have been so wildly successful. For how much we love this theory, that doesn’t seem to resemble history.
True, those people were in a way ahead of their times. They were geniuses, risk takers and in some cases mavericks. However, were they the only ones able to advance our society? That is not the case.
Assuming those people were isolated geniuses able to come up with the unimaginable; if the culture around wouldn’t have been able to acknowledge those inventions we wouldn’t have traces as of now of those discoveries. So what really influenced technological adoption?
The four patterns of technological adoption
According to Jared Diamond, there are four patterns to look at when looking for technological adoption:
- a relative economical advantage with existing technology
- social value and prestige
- compatibility with vested interests
- the ease with which those advantages can be observed
Relative economic advantage with existing technology
The first point seems obvious. In fact, for one technology to win over the other doesn’t have just to be better; but way more effective. To think of a recent example, when Google took off the search industry. When Google got into the search industry, it was not the first player. It was a latecomer. Yet its algorithm, PageRank, was so superior to its competition that it quickly took off.
Social value and prestige
This is less intuitive. In fact, for how much we love to think of ourselves as rational creatures, in reality, we might be way more social than we’re rational. Thus, social value and prestige of a technological innovation play as much a key role in its adoption as its innovative aspects.
Think about Apple’s products. Apple follows a business model which can be defined as razor and blade business model. In short, the company attracts users on its platform, iTunes or Apple Store by selling music or apps for a convenient price, while selling its iPhones at very high margins.
However, it is undeniable that what makes Apple able to sell its computers and phones at a higher price compared to competitors is the brand the company was able to build over the years. In short, as of the time of this writing, Apple still represents a status quo that makes the company highly profitable.
Compatibility with vested interests
In Jared Diamond‘s book, Germs, Guns & Steel to prove this point he uses the story of the QWERTY keyboard. This is the keyboard most probably you’re using right now on your mobile device or computer. It is called in this way because its first left-most six letters form the name “QWERTY.”
Have you ever wondered why do you use this standard? You might think this has to do with efficiency. But instead, that is the opposite. This standard has been invented at the end of the 1800s when typewriters became the standard.
When typists were typing too fast those (page 248 of Germs, Guns & Steel) typewriters jammed. In short, they came up with a system that was thought to slow down typists so that typewriters wouldn’t get jammed anymore. Yet as the more than a century went by and we started to use computers, and mobile devices instead of switching to a more efficient system we kept the old one. Why?
According to Jared Diamond, the most compelling reason for not being able to switch to a new standard was the vested interests of small lobbies of typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople.
The ease with which those advantages can be observed
When a technological advancement can be easily recognized as the fruit of the success of an organization, country or enterprise, it will be adopted by anyone that wants to keep up with it. Think for instance, about two countries going to war. One of them has a secret weapon that makes them win the war.
As soon as the enemy that lost the battle finds that out, next time that weapon will also be adopted by the losing side. Think also of another more recent example. As big data has become a secret technological weapon used by Obama to win his electoral campaign. So Trump has used it to take over his competitors during the last US political campaign.
Now that we know what are the four patterns of technological adoption, one might wonder: do we still need to believe in heroic entrepreneurs?
Do we still need to believe in heroic entrepreneurs?
I’ve recently read Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He has an interesting point about beliefs. They need to be judged at epistemological level. In short, those don’t have to be taken literally. For instance, when we read a story about Edison, Lincoln or Rockefeller, chances are those story are apocryphal.
However, that story might make you believe something that makes you take action. If anyone was “rational” and calculating the probability of success of a startup, none would become an entrepreneur.
In fact, some of what we call “irrational beliefs” make us take actions that might lead to certain results that are good for the collective. Thus, if you do take actions that benefit the collective, you cannot be called irrational.
Because what matters is not the belief itself but the positive result it leads to. Thus, if you want to believe that we would still be in the dark; had Edison not invented the light bulb; so be it!
Yet don’t ask anyone to believe that story, instead, use that belief to do something great! You also know now what are the factors to take into account for technological adoption.
As technology advances, most of the times they are the result of tinkering and trial and errors. Also, the adoption of those technology depends upon the ability of a society to accept those technologies.
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