The Speculist: Disruption and Transformation


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Disruption and Transformation

Preparing for the Foresight Vision Weekend in Sunnyvale, I've been doing a lot of thinking about my map of the development space for nanotechnology which we revisited in a recent edition of FasftForward Radio.

I've never been completely satisfied with the axes of that diagram. I wanted to show how some developments have this immediate overwhelming impact, while others set the stage to allow for further developments that ultimately have that kind of impact. Still others look like there's something major happening, but it's less than meets the eye. In its new iteration, I am replacing the vertical axis with disruption and the horizontal axis with transformation. Here's my new draft version:


This scale could be applied to any technology, not just nanotech. What we're measuring is how immediately, and visibly, disruptive a technological development is versus how much impact that technology will have over the long term. The four quadrants of the scale are:

Sustaining Technologies -- those with a relatively low level of disruption that don't, in and of themselves, represent a major change in how we perceive or interact with the world. One random example might be all the technological advances made in engineering bicycles over the past few decades. Bikes are much more sophisticated than they used to be, and the bike-riding experience has been transformed. But they still by large look like and function as bicycles and the overall impact on society hasn't been overwhelming.

Illustrative Technologies -- those that have a large disruption quotient, showing us how things might be different, but that don't do much in the way of moving us towards the transformation that later technologies will bring about. The Apple Newton comes to mind as an example of an illustrative technological development. It was a kind of a false dawn. Maybe in comparison to today's mobile phones, all PDAs were a false dawn? Anything that is viewed as ahead of its time, not ready for prime time -- in other words, anything that's cool, but doesn't get us anywhere -- is an illustrative technological development.

Foundational Technologies -- Those that don't have any real gee-whiz factor, but that bring about major changes to society or that have a tremendous impact on how we see or interact with the world. This book provides a number of great examples. Take the stirrup. It didn't get us off horseback or cure any diseases of the Middle Ages, but it completely transformed the political and economic landscape of Europe. The problem with that example, of course -- along with anything else from Downes and Mui's book -- is that these were all arguably very disruptive technologies. Maybe "disruption" isn't the right word, here. I mean obviously, visibly disruptive. Before the stirrup, you've got two guys on horseback fighting each other. After the stirrup, you have what looks like the exact same situation (or pretty close) but the guy with stirrups always wins.

Magical Technologies -- those that look like a major shift and that are a major shift. At the most recent Boulder Future Salon, some of the guys were reminiscing about the day they made the switch from a slide rule to an electronic calculator. Many experienced a similar frisson when making the leap from typewriter to word processor. I recently had a similar experience when for the first time I used a GPS device to navigate my way around a city I don't know. But these kinds of things are in the lower left corner of the magical quadrant. As we move up and to the right, we find the true stuff of Speculism -- space elevators, utility fog, full immersion VR.

I hope to get ideas on this model from discussions at the Vision Weekend. Will report back on progress. Also, look forward to anyt thoughts that any of you might have.

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