Radiolab: What Does Technology Want?

I was recently turned on to the addictive Radiolab podcast by a friend; I ended up listening to 6 episodes in a row.

The episode titled “What Does Technology Want?” features guest Kevin Kelly talking about the idea that maybe technology has some intrinsic guiding force that pushes it in a certain direction, similar to how a tree grows toward sunlight.

It seems like a more common perspective on technology is that it’s guided by what people want from it. People wanted to be able to communicate over long distances, so we invented the telegraph. People wanted to haul things, so we invented steam engines.

Instead, the podcast presents the perspective that ideas are bound to occur to someone given the right conditions. The example of the light bulb is used: the concept of the light bulb was apparently conceived separately by several people, all around the same time.

This is a really cool way to think about innovation — as long as you don’t get caught up on the idea that maybe creativity isn’t so much creative, as inevitable; I don’t — and I think I can pick out some examples of it.

In the past 5 to 8 years (ballpark), there has been major growth in mobile computing, carried on the back of semiconductor manufacturing advances and growing data networks. This has led to huge amounts of people getting directions while driving, sending emails from restaurants, and playing scrabble in bed (this guyyy).

In parallel to this proliferation of portable computers, major progress was being made in the field of position, navigation, and timing. Specifically, the Global Positioning System (GPS). Some really smart people worked really hard to solve a surprisingly difficult problem: providing an accurate location of anything, anywhere in the world.

So now we have people traveling all over the place with internet connected phones. And we have a network of satellites in orbit allowing those phones to figure out exactly where they are. I can see a pretty reasonable argument that it was only a matter of time before the idea of location aware services began to occur to (probably many) people.

When I think of foursquare (which I just joined), it seems like an almost obvious idea. Where is a good place to go out tonight? Trending locations. Even better, check-in based specials. Super cool.

Perhaps another example is internet search. As the internet started to snowball, it got to the point where there was way more content than any person could keep track of. Again, it’s not unreasonable to think the it “just made sense” to come up with some way to find specific things. It’s a logical next step. Pepper in a bit of algorithms, courtesy of math and computer science, and soon you’ve got everyone’s favorite ubercompany, Google.

So considering this perspective, can we get some insight on what’s next on technology’s agenda?¬†There are certainly plenty of entrepreneurs trying to come up with the next big thing, but from what perspective are they searching?

I don’t want to tip my hand, but if I ever decide a new idea is strong enough to fully commit to, it’s almost certain that I will have been led to it by things I’ve previously done.