An age of technological acceleration

It is one of the great truisms of our time that we live in an age of technological acceleration; the new paradigms keep rolling in, and the intervals between them keep shortening. This acceleration reflects not only the flood of new products, but also our growing willingness to embrace these strange new devices, and put them to use. The waves roll in at ever-increasing frequencies, and more and more of us are becoming trained surfers, paddling out to meet them the second they start to crest. But the HDTV story suggests that this acceleration is hardly a universal law. If you measure how quickly a new technology progresses from an original idea to mass adoption, then it turns out that HDTV was traveling at the exact same speed that color television had traveled four decades earlier. It took ten years for color TV to go from the fringes to the mainstream; two generations later, it took HDTV just as long to achieve mass success.

In fact, if you look at the entirety of the twentieth century, the most important developments in mass, one-to-many communications clock in at the same social innovation rate with an eerie regularity. Call it the 10/10 rule: a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience. The technology standard of amplitude-modulated radio – what we now call AM radio – evolved in the first decade of the twentieth century. The first commercial AM station began broadcasting in 1920, but it wasn’t until the late 1920’s that radios became a fixture in American households. Sony inaugurated research into the first consumer videocassette recorder in 1969, but didn’t ship its first Betamax for another seven years, and VCRs didn’t become a household necessity until the mid-eighties. The DVD player didn’t statistically replace the VCR in American households until 2006, nine years after the first players went on the market. Cell phones, personal computers, GPS navigation devices – all took a similar time frame to go from innovation to mass adoption. 

From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson – Riverhead Books

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