Tag Archives: Revolution

Innovation Hiding in Plain Sight

A few weeks ago, Tim Harford wrote an excellent article in the Financial Timeswhat 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.


Revolution, Revolution, Everywhere!

I recently was lucky enough to bear witness to what is likely to win a number of awards at this year’s Oscars — . While the writers of the film did their best to maintain , of course, some dramatic liberties were taken. Nonetheless, I thought it was a rather smart movie and really allowed the audience to peer behind the curtains of what it was like for King George VI in the earlier part of the 1900s.

One of the things that surprised me in the film was when one of the character’s pointed out that if England were to go to war with Germany, it would mark the second world war that some of the citizens of the country would have witnessed. I can’t imagine being alive at a time such that I would have been able to see not just one world war, but two! Regardless, it reminded me that the state of our world is still not quite where I’d like it to be — peacefully — that is.

I suppose that with each passing day, something is learned, or at least I hope that’s the case. Why else would we be seeing the that we are seeing in Egypt and Tunisia? And now, countries like Bahrain and Libya are seeing what happened in nearby countries and want to stand up and be heard. I think it’s great that we are living in a time where the actions of one group in one country can affect the actions of another group in another country — instantaneously!

Without the internet and the speed at which news can travel in our modern time, I doubt that Egypt (or even Tunisia?) has the success that it did in the peaceful demonstrations. The miracle that is the internet is allowing to succeed without literal “close contact” and instead, it is close contact through social media. Things are happening really fast nowadays, wouldn’t you say?

It was only just about a month ago that the riots started happening in Tunisia. Since then, we’ve already had reform in Tunisia and an uprising and reform in Egypt. As mentioned earlier, now countries like Bahrain and Libya seem to be joining the fray as candidates for reform (although the governments of these countries, and , might not go down without a fight).

So adults living at the time of King George VI got to say, although probably not felt as a privilege, that they witnessed their country enter into two world wars. Adults living today get to say that they’ve been able to watch the fall of two governments in just under a month with the prospect of others to follow. The year 2011 is still quite green… I wonder what else oh-eleven will bring us.

The Superbowl and Twitter

Earlier today, I took the time to watch the . While I watched the Superbowl, I also followed things on Twitter — something I have never done before. I currently do not have a Twitter account and so the ‘‘ is something that is quite foreign to me. I do find myself onto Twitter from time-to-time, to read various updates about things, but I am by no means an expert on the social networking site.

I think part of this is because I currently do not have a cell phone. For some reason, to me, Twitter goes hand-in-hand with a blackberry or an iPhone and just seems a little odd to be tweeting solely from a computer. But really, what do I know?

Anyway, as I was following some of the things happening on Twitter, I was treated to a number of good laughs. The Late Show writers were jokes throughout the whole game. Some of them were quite funny. I also noticed something that is probably known to most people who use Twitter: . “Top Tweets algorithmically selects and retweets some of the most interesting tweets spreading across Twitter,” (straight from the bio page for Top Tweets). I found many of the ‘top tweets deserving of an “lol” as I watched the game and followed the tweets.

As the game wore on, I noticed that as a player would perform well on the field or something would happen, almost immediately, it would become a trending topic on Twitter. There are nearly (or maybe are now), 200,000,000 users on Twitter. For things to be immediately trending so quickly, it’d mean that quite a few of those users would have to tweet that topic.

I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone the popularity of the Superbowl around the US. People gather at parties all across the nation whether they enjoy football or not. The Superbowl has become one big social event and as such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that things that happen during this ‘massive social event’ would be ‘revealed on Twitter’ — instantaneously. I can’t help but think of the possibilities for using Twitter for “good.” As some have written about, for their ‘revolutionary’ actions. I’m thinking beyond one country and thinking globally.

What if we used Twitter to organize a worldwide day of silence or mass meditation? I’m sure I’m not the first person to have come up with this idea given how long Twitter has been in popular culture, but I think that it would be, downright awesome if something like that could happen. A day organized through Twitter where everyone meditated at the exact same moment. I like how has a domino effect, but I think it’d be cool if there were a day where there was also a simultaneous event. Something that is positive and contributes to the greater well-being of our planet.