A few weeks ago, Tim Harford wrote an excellent article in the Financial Times – what we get wrong about technology. It’s chock-full of things worth considering. For instance, in the opening paragraph, Harford reminds us of a scene from the sci-fi movie Blade Runner. In particular, he draws our attention to the disparateness of having such sophisticated technology that a robot is indistinguishable from a human [Rachael, for those that remember the 1980s classic!], but people still use payphones for communication [Emphasis Added]:
There is something revealing about the contrast between the two technologies — the biotech miracle that is Rachael, and the graffiti-scrawled videophone that Deckard uses to talk to her. It’s not simply that Blade Runner fumbled its futurism by failing to anticipate the smartphone. That’s a forgivable slip, and Blade Runner is hardly the only film to make it. It’s that, when asked to think about how new inventions might shape the future, our imaginations tend to leap to technologies that are sophisticated beyond comprehension.
Later on, Harford reviews the revolutionary invention of the printing press. As it happens, the printing press might have gone the way of the EV1, if not for another invention [Emphasis Added]:
But it would have been a Rachael — an isolated technological miracle, admirable for its ingenuity but leaving barely a ripple on the wider world — had it not been for a cheap and humble invention that is far more easily and often overlooked: paper.
The printing press didn’t require paper for technical reasons, but for economic ones. Gutenberg also printed a few copies of his Bible on parchment, the animal-skin product that had long served the needs of European scribes. But parchment was expensive — 250 sheep were required for a single book. When hardly anyone could read or write, that had not much mattered.
Paper had been invented 1,500 years earlier in China and long used in the Arabic world, where literacy was common. Yet it had taken centuries to spread to Christian Europe, because illiterate Europe no more needed a cheap writing surface than it needed a cheap metal to make crowns and sceptres. Paper caught on only when a commercial class started to need an everyday writing surface for contracts and accounts.
It has to make you wonder… what have we already invented today that will be necessary for the success of a “revolutionary” invention that’s yet to come?
Toilet paper seems a long way from the printing revolution. And it is easily overlooked — as we occasionally discover in moments of inconvenience. But many world-changing inventions hide in plain sight in much the same way — too cheap to remark on, even as they quietly reorder everything. We might call this the “toilet-paper principle”.
Harford goes on to recount many instances of the ‘toilet-paper principle’ in action. He cites barbed wire as the reason for settlers to invest in their land, where previously they had no way of cost-effectively keeping things in (or keeping things out). This quote is particularly apt:
It takes a visionary to see how toilet-paper inventions can totally reshape systems; it’s easier for our limited imaginations to slot Rachael-like inventions into existing systems.
While we’re busy imagining life with flying cars or teleportation, I wonder what innovations we’re missing that are hiding in plain sight.