The Past is Prologue

The desire to believe in a new technology is overwhelmingly strong in Silicon Valley. We want to believe the world can be changed radically and swiftly. And while our intention is to promote innovation, this need to believe leaves us vulnerable to neomania – the irrational and untested love of all things new.

In some ways, a certain degree of neomania is productive and helpful. Yet we need to refine our understanding of the relationship between old and new technologies. Old technologies – from silverware to shoes to the wheel – have proven their usefulness over and through time by being tested in multiple contexts. Shiny gadgets pop into existence, only to disappear when humanity decides they’re not useful enough.

Reflect for a minute on the process of refinement for old technologies. Wheels today are made of composites unknown to humanity when wheels were invented. Music listening devices at one time were bulky and heavy, but are now compact and light. These two examples reveal that evergreen technologies morph significantly over time, but their core function does not change. Wheels help move heavy stuff efficiently, while the Walkman and the iPod make music portable. Purposes remain constant, while materials and media change.

This is even true of technically complex fields like biotech. For instance, if you’re developing a testing platform that leverages advances in measuring biomarkers to diagnose different types of cancer, you can be confident that your goal – identifying disease – is not going to become irrelevant to humanity anytime soon. Wherever there are fragile humans, there will be a need to identify and treat disease.

Here’s one final way to look at neomania. Every time I speak with a potential client, a very basic thought crosses my mind: Is this something shiny, or is this something real? The more I reflect on where Silicon Valley is – and where it could be – the more I think the horizon against which we evaluate novel technologies needs to stretch into the past as much as it reaches into the future. After all, the past gives us richer, more highly-distilled signals about what the future could be than the present.

So the next time someone says they’re building something that will change the world, try to ignore the media they’re using, the platform they’re leveraging, and the particular materials bringing their technology to life. Focus instead on whether they’re chasing something that has been relevant to a wide swath of humanity for a very long time.

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