Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution and author, Entry #1.  Most entries are formatted as conversations. Characters appear in a number of entries, with many entries building on previous conversations.  

Occasionally I do a “sense check.”  Auditing one’s own work is problematic but I try to be objective.  Entries #300 and #301 are the most recent standard “sense checks.”   Entries (#310-#313) broke from conversation format.  One more note — sometimes I write about another topic that does not quite fit the theme of the blog.  Those comments are in the page titled “JRD Thoughts and Comments.”   

Scene: Jordan’s office, Washington, DC.  Continuing conversation with Gelly, Jordan’s assistant.  Conversation began Entry #308.

Jordan: “OK, Gelly, I’m back. On the break I thought more how to keep this discussion simple.”

Gelly: “Good. So where do we start?”

Jordan: “First step is to decide what’s a disruptive technology for society compared to a disruptive technology for a company or industry.”

Coffee cup StarbucksGelly: “Just looking at your coffee cup, I suspect the introduction of a paper coffee cup was a major disruption to the pottery coffee-cup makers.  However, it’s hard to imagine the paper coffee cup had a major societal impact. Is that what you mean?”

Jordan: “Exactly. Same logic applies to causes of the various revolutions in the US. The Great Depression in the 1930’s caused a major economic disruption for much of the population but there was no societal upheaval as there was with the other revolutions.  In fact, one might argue that during the Great Depression most of the US population came closer together rather growing than farther apart.”

Gelly: “Think I understand the difference. Now, how about looking at some technologies. Before the break I asked if computers and automobiles were technologies that caused disruptions to society.”

Jordan: “Computers seem to be easier to analyze…but be prepared because the discussion might get a bit messy.”

Gelly: “OK. If computers really started to change society, then when did the change start?”

IBM MainframeJordan: “In the 1960’s when IBM introduced what were called mainframe computers. Granted, by today’s standards, the mainframes were big and slow. There were special air-conditioned rooms to handle all the extra heat from the computers. Plus, for a lot of applications, you had to transfer information to punch cards before you could use the computer. While those computers were clunky and dumb by today’s standards, the machines were breakthroughs for the time — offering at least a couple of orders of magnitude better data management and analysis.”

Gelly: “I said to keep the discussion simple, please. What’s an order of magnitude?”

Chart RisingJordan: “Each order of magnitude represents a tenfold increase. One order of magnitude would be 10x higher than the previous number. Two orders would be 100x higher – 10x the previous number which also was 10x higher. Three orders would be 10x10x10 or 1,000x higher.  Look at this chart and then imagine the line going up faster than what’s shown.”

Gelly: “So you think the computer increased data management and analysis by say 100 times, maybe 1,000 times? Wow.”

Jordan: “Wow is right. The gains didn’t apply to everything but they did to a lot of analysis. However…and this problem still exists today…you had to make sure input data was good. Otherwise, it was GIGO — garbage in, garbage out.”

092615_2031_Characters7.gifGelly: “Did IBM just one day decide to invent the computer or was something else invented that allowed the mainframe to be developed?”

Jordan: “Very perceptive question. The first so-called computers were even larger than the ones I described. The early computers used vacuum tubes and were not very practical. Have you ever seen a vacuum tube?”

Gelly: “Think so.  My grandmother kept a radio from her childhood. She took the back off one time and all I saw was a bunch of tubes. What I remember most is one time I touched a tube and it was really hot.”

Semi-ConductorJordan: “What changed to allow IBM…and a few others…to make practical mainframes was a way to eliminate vacuum tubes. The invention was the semi-conductor. Think of a semi-conductor as a computer chip or the SIM card in your phone. The early chips were not nearly as powerful as today.”

Gelly: “So getting rid of vacuum tubes was the breakthrough?”

Jordan: “Yes along with being able to store data on magnetic tape.”

Gelly: “With semi-conductors, IBM could make machines more powerful but smaller and cheaper, right?”

Jordan: “Yes. And now back to the question, ‘Does a certain technology become the driving force for societal change or merely a catalyst for societal change?’”

Know NothingsGelly: “If I understand correctly, the invention of the semi-conductor did not cause societal change per se. The societal change occurred only after products were developed using the semi-conductor. So, in deciding how a society adapts or manages technology-induced disruption, does it really matter whether the invention is the driver or the catalyst for the change? Deciding which might be a good academic exercise but does anyone else care?”

Jordan: “You’re right, it probably does not matter whether the technology is the driver or the catalyst. The semi-conductor could have been invented but then put on the shelf and never used. That’s happened to who knows how many inventions.  And some of those shelf sitters might be as important for society as the semi-conductor.”

HorseGelly: “Jordan, are we looking at the issue from the wrong end? We’re trying to find the cause of the societal disruptions. Would a better approach be to ignore the cause and analyze how the  technology disrupted society…and, if so, what kind of disruption?”

Jordan: “Mmm, you might be on to something. Keep talking.”

Gelly: “Say if some company like IBM had not used the semi-conductor, we might not have laptops, internet, or smartphones.”

Jordan: “Good point. Let’s not get hung up on who or what technology caused the disruption. Let’s look at the change that resulted.”

Gelly: “Go back to IBM. My uncle used to work there. If family stories are anywhere near correct, IBM quickly became a behemoth company, making lots money for many people, including my uncle.”

Jordan: “So how long do you think the IBM growth spurt was? Just for fun, let me do a quick download of IBM sales over time.”

Gelly: “OK.”

18 11 24 IBM Growth Yr-to-Yr 1007214-13999302201478128-Peter-E--Greulich_origin_LIJordan: “Take a look at sales after WWII and the hand-drawn blue line.  The company had positive sales growth virtually every year from right after WWII to almost 1990 – 45 years.”

Gelly: “Some of those year-to-year gains don’t look like much.”

Jordan: “Take another look at the scale on the left side. There were a lot of years when sales increased 15% or more over the prior year. That kind of gain for one year is good. To achieve that kind of gain year after year after year is phenomenal.”

Gelly: “So what happened in the early 1990’s? Sales declined for several years…and doesn’t look like they’ve really bounced back since.”

Laptop 1990Jordan: “What IBM missed was the shift to the personal computer – desktops first, then laptops. Even though the PC was not as powerful as the mainframe, it was easier to use.”

Gelly: “I’m beginning to appreciate what you mean by the analysis being complicated. The semi-conductor gets invented, then voila, a bunch of new electronic products are introduced – mainframe computers to portable radios – and society begins to change behavior.”

Jordan: “As semi-conductors become more powerful, more products are introduced – personal computers, e.g. – and a new set of players dominates the scene – Apple, Microsoft and Dell. IBM’s still around but no longer the really big dog.”

Gelly: “Then the internet comes along and we have another set of players. By the way, wasn’t the internet some kind of Defense Department project?”

Jordan: “It was.  DoD worked with a small number of universities to set up a commutations network to make it easier to exchange data between computers. I’ll bet that in their wildest dreams these guys never thought how the internet would grow and be used today. Who could have imagined the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon?”

Gelly: “So, if I step back and try to decide if society was changed by electronic products…and the answer is ‘yes’…then the base technology that allowed the change as the semi-conductor. But without products that used the semi-conductor – mainframes, laptops, portable radios, cell phones…and who knows what else – the semi-conductor would not have been a game changer.”

TurtleneckJordan: “Now you can see why trying to figure out how much society was changed by a specific technology is a messy exercise. Some products that influence societal behavior, at least in my estimation, don’t even qualify as technology breakthroughs. Others are breakthroughs but don’t get credit.”

Gelly:  “OK, Jordan, cut the gibberish and tell me what you mean.”

Jordan:  “Some so-called breakthrough products are really integration of existing components, albeit very sophisticated component integration but still integration.”

Gelly: “By integration you mean like picking and choosing parts from other products and then creating a new product? Sorta like Italian food. Spaghetti, linguine, angel hair have essentially the same base ingredients but are configured differently.”

iPhone3Jordan: “That’s a different way of looking at it but a good example. Let me give you one of my favorites. Not sure everyone on the original development team would agree, but I think the iPhone was a very clever and sophisticated integration of components from cell phones and laptops.”

Gelly: “Alright, but even if some products are integrations, so what? Can’t these products change society?”

Jordan: “Absolutely. And there’s another yet aspect of how a technology can change societal behavior – that is the life cycle of a product.

Gelly: “We can talk about life cycle.  But before we do I have a question for you.”

Jordan: “Which is?”

Miracle on 34th StreetGelly: “Near the end of the movie ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ when they’re driving down some the suburban street, Natalie Wood shouts something. Remember what she shouted”

Jordan: “You mean, ‘Stop Uncle Fred, stop!’”

Gelly: “That’s what we’re going to do now – stop.”