A {$arbitrary_disruptive_technology} In Every Home

The fantastic culmination of James Burke’s talk at dConstruct last week set me thinking about a misleading trope that seems to recur with regularity in our discourse about technology.

Through his 70s TV series James was a childhood hero of mine. I wrote about his talk in my summary of the event, and thanks to the generous and well-organised dConstruct team you can also listen to the whole thing online.

With a series of stories, James showed how chance connections have led to important new discoveries and paradigm shifts – how, for example, a wrecked ship gave rise to the invention of toilet roll. So far, so serendipitous.

But then he set off on a flight of fancy that I found harder to follow, on the implications of nanotechnologies still gestating in the R&D labs. How this stuff would transform the world in the next 30 to 40 years! Not, thankfully, with a Prince Charles grey goo apocalypse but with a triumph of anarchist equilibrium.

How would the Authorities cope when their subjects no longer needed them to arbitrate Solomon-like over scarce resources? How would society be structured in a new world of abundant everything (except maybe mud, apparently the basic element of nanoconstruction)? How would Everything be changed by the arrival of A Nanotechnology Factory In Every Home?

A {$arbitrary_disruptive_technology} In Every Home!

I wondered what other innovations have held such promise. Cue Google Book Search where among the random pickings I find:

  • 1984: “modem in every home”
  • 1978: “robot in every home”
  • 1976: “microprocessor in every home”
  • 1975: “wireless telegraphy in every home”
  • 1943: “television in every home”
  • 1937: “telephone in every home”
  • 1915: “water supply in every home”
  • 1908: “sewing machine in every home”
  • 1900: “piano and good pictures in every home”

And some of the most popular charted with the wonderful Ngram Viewer:

It seems that whenever a transformative technology comes along there are some who dare to dream of its widespread adoption. On paper of course, they are right. I live in a home with all the above (though we in the developed world can all too easily overlook the 780 million people who still rely on unsafe water supplies).

Yet the focus on the domestic obscures the fact that all these technologies and resources are still employed as much, if not more, in our public spaces and workplaces as in our private homes.

  • A fountain in every town square
  • A screen at every bus stop
  • A server in every server farm
  • A robot in every loading bay
  • A sewing machine in every sweat shop

So why the allure of a domestic context?

200 years ago the Luddites found themselves, with good reason, resisting the wrenching of textile trades out of their cottages and into the factories. They responded by machine breaking, not machine making.

Now, however, we look to technology to redress the balance in the other direction. By limboing under a bar of low price and simple operation, goes the narrative, each new technology will find its place in every home, thus setting people free from the tyranny of mass production.

Except that’s not how it really works out. Even for the cheap and plentiful, large-scale industrialisation trumps cozy domestication.

The printing press managed to change society drastically between 1500 and 1800 without the need to deliver hot metal to the home. One in every town appears to have been plenty disruptive enough. And while computer-connected home printers have been a reality for decades the use cases for large-scale industrial printing continue to expand.

The Computer In Every Home was a vision held early on by the pioneers of the Homebrew Computer Club. But as a by-product of ushering in a new era of small-scale tinkering, homebrew hackers Jobs and Wozniak also happened to grow the most valuable single public company of all time!

And while I write this post in a living room stuffed with processing power and data storage, the services that I value most run in and from the network – Gmail, Facebook, WordPress.com, Dropbox – not so much a computer in every home as a home in every computer. What’s more, for this convenience, it appears people are prepared to put their faith in the most unaccountable, parvenu providers.

The same may be true of the 3d printer, current poster child of post-industrialism. The sector is in spitting distance of  sub-$1000, desktop units, but those are unlikely to prove the most popular or productive way to disperse the benefits of this new technology. Far simpler to pack rows of bigger units into factories where they can be more easily serviced and efficiently employed round the clock.

So if the alchemy of nanotechnology does come to pass (and I’ll be stocking up on Maldon mud just in case) then – like it or not – it seems as likely to be a centralised and centralising force as a decentralising one.

Or am I missing something? Economists, historians of science, help me out, please.

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