Hi Y’all. Me again.
For those who do not know me, my name is Shahar Larry. I’ve spent most of my career as an innovation consultant and an entrepreneur. Over the past 6 months, I have been making my first steps into the world of Cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and ICOs. This article is part of a diary-like notebook that I am keeping. I figured that there must be other people like me, looking to better understand what’s what.
Although I’m super excited with blockchain, this piece will not focus only on blockchain. Instead, I will suggest a new innovation category — “Nostalgic Innovation” — which refers to the application of advanced technologies to realize more natural human activities and interactions. Simply put, new technologies, such as information and communication technology or material technology, are being applied in a way that enables millennia-old, pre-tech and sometimes pre-historic, human behavior — only cheaper, better, faster and more scalable. Hooray!
TL;DR — Technology is taking us back to the fundamentals of human behavior and interaction
- Technology-driven innovation has propelled humanity farther and faster than we could ever have imagined.
- It also forced us to get used to new, less natural ways of experiencing and interacting with our environment and other people.
- It seems to have been a small price to pay for the proliferation and growth of knowledge, value creation, and progress.
- Technology reached a point in which, we can use it to do things, on a large scale, fast and efficiently and still in a way that feels natural and fits better with our biological-evolutionary makeup.
Three projects and one recurring insight
I’ve been professionally studying new technologies my entire adult life (and non-professionally, my entire life). Being an Innovation consultant and an entrepreneur helps (I probably chose those because of my drive to learn and experience new technologies). In 2015 I shifted my focus from broad-spectrum innovation to disruptive innovation. Three of the projects I’ve been involved with, recently, are especially interesting. They all have the same underlying insight:
Technology is taking us back in time to pre-tech, sometimes prehistoric eras, allowing us to experience and interact in a more biologically-evolutionary natural way (while still enjoy the benefit of improved efficiency and efficacy on a large scale).
1st case: 3D Printing — back to the pre-industrial age
500 years ago, if you wanted a table, a shirt, a plate, a house — anything tangible — you would either order it or buy it from a craftsman. He would make you a chair. That chair, perhaps similar in design to other chairs he had made, would have still been unique. Same goes for anything else people made. The world was filled with things that were, almost literally, tailor-made.
Then came the industrial revolution, followed by the assembly line. Technology opened a door to us. It allowed us, for the first time in history, to mass manufacture millions of almost identical parts/things at a radically low cost per unit. We gave up variance and in return, we got access and bounty of things. This is not as trivial as you might think. People didn’t use to have things. They were expensive, handcrafted and reserved to the higher echelons of society. We grew to love our “Mountains O’ Things”.
3D printing/additive manufacturing is changing that. We can see today a future in which we would be able to manufacture things at home. Every year, every month, every week, new materials and new applications are becoming available in 3D printing. Costs are going down. The 3D Printing industry is moving at the speed of an information-enabled industry and is adhering to Moore’s law.
Well, think about it. 3D printing means we can reintroduce variance without losing the benefits of access to bounty (because it will be cost effective etc.). Variance is really important. First, we are used to variance. We evolved in a world in which no two snowflakes are the same, no two blades of grass are the same, no two humans are the same. Variance is the more natural experience. Is that necessarily better? Well, I don’t know, but I think it is. I think evolving over millions of years means something. I think, there’s a reason why every dystopian story or movie depicts a human society with low variance. I think we celebrate our variance.
This technology is taking us back to the pre-industrial time and is giving us access to the artisan variance with all the advantages of modern economy. We can now have endless designs that anyone can manufacture anywhere, with a growing list of materials and with a constantly decreasing cost. This basically covers every tangible thing around us. For millennia, we would eat what we make. Nowadays food is industrially prefabricated. 3D printing is changing that. We will soon be able to print our own recipes at home. Synthesizing at the molecular level is not here yet, but I suspect it will be here sooner than we think.
2nd case: Virtual Reality
So, a quick and crude walk-through the history of communication.
Before language, information was communicated with gestures and sounds. Before written language, it was communicated with drawings, stories, and songs.
[While writing this, my two young daughters came to my workstation and saw me searching for pictures of cave drawings. “What’s you doin’ dad?” | I explain | “Cool. It looks like drawing we make” | I nod and smile…”Indeed it does”]
Early written languages were verysimilar to comics (Pictograms) — pictures that represented either words or sounds. Below is an example of how Sumerian developed from being fully pictorial to Cuneiform.
It is no longer possible to identify the visual source of the sound or word.
As the written language developed it gave up some of its variance to become more efficient and less ambiguous. Written languages became flexible enough to fit an endless number of situations, and allowed us to communicate efficiently and uniformly across different contexts. Still, we feel the need to add a smiling emoji at the end of a sentence with a potentially ambiguous tone. 🙂 The written language gave up a lot of the nuance, the sound, the gestures, the facial expressions and the context. 🙁
However, for millennia, written languages were used by a tiny minority. Most human communication was people standing close to one another, talking to each other while sensing each other (visual cues, tone, smell, etc.) — without any of it being written down and with most information dissipating shortly after.
Then, around 1440, came the printing press. That was massive! Before the printed word revolution, communication was vocal, visual and spatial. Humans were mostly voice and gesture activated. People didn’t use text. The printing technology made written language scalable and permanent. It made the transfer of human knowledge more efficient and effective: superior accuracy at a fraction of the cost per unit. Books became the main source of indirect proliferation of information. Human progress accelerated!
Gutenberg made us addicted to the written word. We abandoned the drawings (books used to be filled with illustrations — those became scarce in “serious” textbooks). We abandoned, now on a global scale, the nuances of spoken language, the rich information embedded in human-to-human interaction, the “music” of the storytellers. We also lost its transience, the written word was stable and recorded conversations became permanent.
Then came the internet. It was a network designed by academics for academics and not surprisingly it was based on text. Vint Cerf, one of the leaders of the nascent internet, said: “Written communication is a tremendous help for me, and so when electronic mail was invented in ’71, I got very excited about it, thinking well, gee, the deaf community could really use this, or the hard of hearing community as well.”
This small, highly educated group of people, did not, and does not, represent humanity, at least not in the average human ability to absorb and communicate information. For most humans, communicating with sound and gestures in a three-dimensional space is easier and more natural. Yes, I know what you are going to say. Young people today, using their phones, hardly ever use it to talk. They only text. Well, a couple of things. First, when they are actually physically close to one another, they do talk. Second, it is difficult to call what they do texting — more like pictograming — which means they are regressing into ancient Sumerian or Egyptian hieroglyphics. Third, many record audio and video, ’cause it’s easier.
But let’s get back to the matter at hand. The internet was text-based, to begin with, and it is still primarily based on text and writing. This is changing, fast. Siri, Alexa, Youtube, voice typing, language recognition — all these technologies are maturing. Nevertheless, most people still type words when they search for stuff. It’s really strange if you think about it. When you look for something in a messy room, you do not type text, or even voice — you move around and puck things up.
As a kid in the comics store, I would use my fingers to flip through and my eyes to identify the different issues. In dire straights, I would use voice and ask…
A Short Story about Google and J-Lo’s Green Dress
Google’s image search function did not exist before 2003 and it came to be because of a famous green dress….
The day after Jennifer Lopez’s provocative appearance at the 42nd Grammy Awards ceremony on February 23, 2000 — the internet crashed with searches like “green dress picture”. The story is that this spike was the trigger for Google developing the Google Image Search. The key insight here is that this human behavior of relating to visual cues was always there — google needed someone — like Jennifer Lopez — to remind it…
To sum up, Human beings evolved to communicate and interact in a vocal, visual, expressive, three-dimensional spatial environment. Text-based interaction was a constraint, we are now poised to transcend.
Virtual reality is exciting because it too is regressive, or nostalgic. It takes us back to the time before the written word. A time of human communication that is spatial, vocal and gesture-based. It allows us to interface with information and communication technologies in a much more natural and intuitive way. This is very apparent when you look at kids interacting with VR for the first time (I tried this on my two daughters — I know that is hardly conclusive — but look it up — there is more robust evidence to support this).
Making our internet interface more similar to our reality interface (the way we interact in the real world) will make the experience better, easier and more natural. It will also make the internet accessible to many more people — independent of their language, culture, literacy proficiency, tech-savviness, age or background.
3rd case: Blockchain
If you are not acquainted with blockchain, you might want to have a quick look at this article — it provides some necessary background.
Ok, so after all of this meandering, I am getting to my key point — blockchain. Just like 3D printing and Virtual Reality, blockchain is also a Nostalgic Innovation.
To get right to the point — blockchain allows us to transact much the same way cavemen transacted — without a regulator, without expensive transaction costs, in a simple, straightforward way — only it fits the modern world which means it’s global and fast and scalable (with limitations that will be resolved).
Public ledgers and other forms of central record keeping were used to prove ownership and collect taxes. Regardless of criticism, some may have for this bureaucracy, it served a purpose. For many years, there was simply no alternative and in general central bodies did provide needed services to the population — as Monty Python demonstrated.
However, central ledgers suffered from systemic risks and vulnerabilities and made transactions slow, expensive and inaccessible to many.
Blockchain is an open and public, yet anonymous, distributed (decentralized), self-regulating, disintermediated ledger, keeping and maintaining records of transactions. Being open and public yet anonymous — the blockchain is very difficult to manipulate. Being distributed/decentralized, it is sturdy and secure. The blockchain architecture allows it to self-regulate which means it needs no intermediate and therefore is faster and cheaper.
Blockchain is Nostalgic Innovation because it makes transacting fast, cheap and more natural as it is simply two parties transacting directly with one another.
Why Nostalgic Innovation is so Contagious
Nostalgic Innovations are spreading like wildfire, not only because they reduce the cost of verification and of collaborating, but also because they resonate with natural human behaviors, that even if temporarily forgotten, we (especial younger populations) quickly recognize. Snapchat was derided for years as silly. Today when its unparalleled penetration and growth rate are apparent, it suddenly makes sense. When we talk to each other, on the street, we are in fact Snapchatting. We say things and then they disappear. If you think about it is a much more natural way to communicate and it is as old as language….That is why it caught on, especially with younger audiences that were not yet tainted by the existing technologies and behaviors that we adopted.
Just before publishing this, I came across this picture:
It made me think about the surprising success Wii had. For a while, it dominated console sales. There are many explanations for this. The Nostalgic Innovation proposition can also provide a compelling explanation. Wii was gesture based. It allowed people, non-tech savvy people, young and old, to interact with games using motions and skills that they were familiar with — to hold a bat, to roll a bowling ball, to swing a golf club — it caught on because it was nostalgic. It resonated with behaviors (such as hand-eye coordination) that were part of our physical-evolutionary heritage — and did not significantly change since pre-historic times.
Till next time.