Innovation and technology predictions

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“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”.
Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

It is easy to look at a statement like this and poke fun. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

But as I have said on many occasions – innovation always comes unexpectedly & from the periphery. Very often the innovation is not a completely new technology, rather it is a new way of using or applying existing technology. The iPhone is a good example of this phenomenon – it is still a mobile phone, yet it changes the very playing field for mobile phones & computers in important ways.

But Watson’s quote shares a common feature with many technology predictions. Based upon then current knowledge of existing business models, technology and applications those predictions are often right at the point in time they are made.

For example, how many people in the world really needed a computer at home that looked like this one?

When Thomas Watson made his comment regarding the number of computers in the world, he had no mental map of a world where a computer could fit into your pocket or be used on your lap while watching television.

For Watson the computer he referred to was something like the British Colossus computer or the American Harvard Mark 1 – these were physically huge machines that were designed to assist with decryption of coded messages during World War II. Machines of this kind were not needed in large numbers across the world, and their cost to build, use and maintain was very high. Thus Watson’s statement from1943 was apt for its time. And he was unable to imagine some of the future improvements in technology, like transistors, that enable us to have computers in every home (and soon in every pocket or handbag).

Predicting technology futures is a funny old thing to do. When an innovation is revealed it often seems obvious, except that it was not obvious until you saw it.

The other challenge with predicting technology futures is that people change in their expectations of what is helpful or desirable. If we had explained Facebook or Twitter to an ordinary person back 1997 they would probably have thought it a completely mad idea. And, with the technology available to us in 1997, it would likely have been a bad user experience too.

But in 2009 Facebook seems like a completely reasonable thing for many ordinary people to use on a regular basis.  I keep wondering what the next big thing will be – I’ve got some ideas.  But my suspicion remains, that like Twitter, when I hear of it first it will seem either stupid or irrelevant.  Then, only gradually will it dawn that this new technology is changing the way we think and behave, or that it is shifting our expectations of technology and people in everyday life.

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Remembering Nan

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Today is my grandmother’s birthday. She passed away many years ago, but in so many ways she is with me everyday.

Until I was quite grown up she did not have any other name for me than ‘Nan’. But as I grew I learned that her name was Christina, named thus in honour of her Danish heritage.

She was born in 1912 – the same year that the Titanic sank – and saw an amazing amount of change and hardship in her time.

Nan lived through two world wars and a depression, but she was always cheerful and focused. She had high standards and I learned early lessons about excellence from her.

Her generation was deprived of many material benefits. A smart woman, her education was truncated by the Great Depression and the need for every able bodied person in the family to work for the good of all.

In spite of that she read voraciously and, in later years, often took me to the library on her daily visits. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor in the children’s section of the public library in Waterloo reading books.

And I remember listening to her stories of visiting Rockdale library with her own grandmother. They would travel in her grandmother’s horse and carriage, and her grandmother wore button boots with a long dress.

Nan once told me how wonderful it was to her that she had gone from travelling in a horse and carriage like that to watching the moon landings. Her view was that she’d lived in an amazing century, and loved it that she had seen so much change and innovation. Her examples included: radio, cinema, TV, space travel, and air travel. She loved new ideas and gadgets and I’m sure would have been actively using social networking technologies like Facebook to keep in touch with people.

She lived a simple life, raising two children alone after the second world war, often working in jobs such as office cleaner and shop assistant. One of her favourite jobs was cleaning the studio & office of John Laws‘ (the well known radio personality) – he used to give her flowers on her birthday.

Nan was one of that generation robbed of so many opportunities by the Depression and World War II. As a result she amassed little financial wealth during her lifetime. But she was rich in love and affection. I owe her greatly for many of my achievements over the years. It is a great pity that she did not live long enough to see her grandchildren achieve remarkably well.

Recently I remembered that Nan always kept a string bag inside her handbag, & now I’ve resurrected this idea as part of my #livelocal efforts. Even now she still manages to inspire me in various ways.

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Normandy and D Day

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This month is the 65th anniversary of the D Day landings in France and on June 6th, as a kind of remembrance, I watched the film Overlord.

The film brought back memories of my visit to Normandy late last year.  Walking over the ground where the landings happened was very eerie and moving.

Utah Beach Normandy
Utah Beach Normandy

We are gradually becoming removed from human contact with the Second World War as its survivors age and pass away.

And we’ve already lost our last human connection to World War I in Australia, with the recent passing of our last living veteran Jack Ross.

But the physical landscape remembers these dreadful battles – you can still see the scars from D-Day in Normandy.  And the impact on the people who fought remains with them forever. My own grandfather suffered both physical and psychological damage from his service in North Africa & the Pacific for the rest of his life.

Although Australian forces were not involved on the ground in the D-Day landings (they were busy fighting in North Africa and the Pacific) some of our Air Force personnel participated.

It was interesting to hear President Obama speak at the memorial service in Normandy. I was moved, as were many of the veterans in the audience, by his words:

Friends and veterans, we cannot forget. What we must not forget is that D-Day was a time and a place where the bravery and the selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century.

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D Day 6th June and Overlord

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overlord posterGot up early this 6th June and went off to the Sydney Film Festival showing of Overlord.

This is a rarely seen film based on Operation Overlord, the code name for the Allied invasion of Normandy, which was launched on D-Day 6th June 1944.

It is a fascinating film, interweaving archival footage and a fictional narrative almost seamlessly.

Overlord was made in 1975, shot in black and white, and the archival film footage from the Second World War was provided by the UK’s Imperial War Museum.

Stuart Cooper, the director, was in attendance and explained some of the background to the film.

He noted that the well-known documentary The World at War was being researched and made using the film archives at the same time – two such different approaches to the same material.

The sound during the film seems to fit completely, so it was a surprise to hear afterwards from Cooper that the archival footage was mute.  Thus the sound crew had to create all the sound to match the archival footage for the film.

Cinematography on the film was by John Alcott (who had a distinguished career & worked a lot with Stanley Kubrick), and the cutting together of modern narrative and wartime footage is amazing.

This film gave an interesting perspective on the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.  Well worth getting up early for!

Had some great company for viewing the film – thanks to @neerav, @schel, and @judsonwelliver. Followed up the film with a tasty lunch at the Art Gallery of NSW restaurant & a glass of Poire William to toast D-Day and those who fought.

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Gilmore of the eponymous law

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~ A few times now I’ve referred to Gilmore’s Law and wanted to share a bit more about its author. John Gilmore is one of the true mavericks of the internet, and he is a self described entrepreneur and civil libertarian. His ideas are further out on the edge than most, but I think our society needs people who question and push the boundaries.

On his website under the heading “Things I’ve Said (That People Sometimes Remember)” he discusses what has come to be termed Gilmore’s Law:

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
— John Gilmore, 1993

It has been popularised as a law by Mark Pesce who has discussed it in a number of places, for example in Understanding Gilmore’s Law.

And as Gilmore says:

This was quoted in Time Magazine’s December 6, 1993 article “First Nation in Cyberspace”, by Philip Elmer-DeWitt. It’s been reprinted hundreds or thousands of times since then, including the NY Times on January 15, 1996, Scientific American of October 2000, and CACM 39(7):13.

In its original form, it meant that the Usenet software (which moves messages around in discussion newsgroups) was resistant to censorship because, if a node drops certain messages because it doesn’t like their subject, the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route. This is also a reference to the packet-routing protocols that the Internet uses to direct packets around any broken wires or fiber connections or routers. (They don’t redirect around selective censorship, but they do recover if an entire node is shut down to censor it.)

The meaning of the phrase has grown through the years. Internet users have proven it time after time, by personally and publicly replicating information that is threatened with destruction or censorship. If you now consider the Net to be not only the wires and machines, but the people and their social structures who use the machines, it is more true than ever. “

Some of the other things Gilmore has started include:

No matter what one might think of Gilmore’s politics and activism it is worth remembering his leadership in some fundamentals that we take for granted with the internet. His ongoing battles over personal freedom are fascinating to read about on his website.

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Palestinian question – an interesting insight

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Just recently came across an old transcript of an interview with Martin van Creveld (one of my favourite military writers – he wrote good books on command in war and technology of war). He gives a really interesting perspective on the problems Israel is having in Gaza, strangely enough things have not improved any since this 2002 interview.

Foreign Correspondent – 20/03/2002: Interview with Martin van Creveld:
Reporter: Jennifer Byrne
“Professor Martin van Creveld, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is Israel’s most prominent military historian. In this interview with Jennifer Byrne he claims that despite the recent increase in Israel’s military operations, the huge Israeli defence forces will inevitably lose to the Palestinians.

Transcript
Byrne: Thanks for joining us tonight on Foreign Correspondent. How has it come to this, Martin… how is it that the mighty Israeli army – one of the world’s most powerful – with its helicopter gunships, with its tanks, with it’s missiles, can be losing to this relatively small, relatively under-armed if fanatical group of Palestinians?

Van Creveld: The same thing has happened to the Israeli army as happened to all the rest that have tried over the last sixty years. Basically it’s always a question of the relationship of forces. If you are strong, and you are fighting the weak for any period of time, you are going to become weak yourself. If you behave like a coward then you are going to become cowardly – it’s only a question of time. The same happened to the British when they were here… the same happened to the French in Algeria… the same happened to the Americans in Vietnam… the same happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan… the same happened to so many people that I can’t even count them.”

Then a little later he makes this point:

“Van Creveld: No. There is one thing that can be done – and that is to put and end to the situation whereby we are the strong fighting the weak, because that is the most stupid situation in which anybody can be.

Byrne: And how do you do that?

Van Creveld: Exactly. How do you do that. You do that by A, waiting for a suitable opportunity… B, doing whatever it takes to restore the balance of power between us and the Palestinians… C, removing 90% of the causes of the conflict, by pulling out… and D, building a wall between us and the other side, so tall that even the birds cannot fly over it…. so as to avoid any kind of friction for a long long time in the future. ”

Maybe it is time they tried a wall? It worked for Berlin for quite a while.

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