Waiting for a meeting in a business incubator I overheard someone explaining their startup. I can summarise: mobile, personalised, social shopping.  “It’s the future” he said. Sounds pretty ‘me-too’ to me. It’s OK, I can let you in this big idea, I haven’t sign an NDA.

If that’s not the most visionary idea you’ve ever heard, it’s antithesis comes from Jaron Larnier (author of “You Are Not A Gadget“).

“Let’s suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, `In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX!’ It would have sounded utterly pathetic.”

If Jaron Larnier is disappointed with Linux and Wikipedia, I can’t imagine what he must feel in the current climate. One particularly depressing statement I’ve heard a lot of goes along these lines: “for most people Facebook is the Internet!”.

Perhaps we haven’t been let down though. Jaron Larnier’s 1980’s self was wonderfully optimistic, that’s probably why he’s achieved so much. But technology takes a long time. Just because processor speed doubles every two years, doesn’t mean society can work out what to do with it at the same rate.

The economic historian Paul A David makes the point that electrification took decades to change industrial production and get into people’s houses. At the beginning it seemed just as frivolous as Lolcats: In 1883 Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt captured the spirit of the age by attending a lavish $250,000 fancy dress party in an electric light bulb costume, then decided electricity was a dangerous fad and had the incandescent lighting stripped from her house for fear of it burning down*.

Yet once power stations and transmission lines and electrical appliances were all in place there was a revolution. An often cited consequence is that labour saving devices in the home liberated women to join the workforce, increasing gender equality and creating economic growth. (Obviously, another way to do this would have been to abandon the convention that women do all the domestic work, which would have achieved equality but not the productivity gains.)

Again, David Edgerton highlights the complex route from invention to implementation in his book The Shock of the Old. He gives many compelling examples, my favourite is that London, Midland and Scottish Railways (one company) had as many horses as it did trains, 10,000. This in 1924, 16 years after the model T Ford had gone on sale and well after tractors were available. Steam power never replaced animal power, it was outmoded before it could do so even though it was well establish in the 18th centuary.

Back to the Internet. The reason mobile-social-etc is the innovation du jour is precisely because it is one of the least substantial. It’s easy for social networking to get take up, no company boards have to approve it, no standards have to be adopted by everyone in an industry, there are no sign up fees and security problems are around privacy, not money.

Consider the contrast with the process of invoicing. You could issue, pay, reconcile, enforce and incur any tax on transactions between companies automatically, using tech not profoundly different from a social network. Likewise for stock tracking, or any one of the bureaucratic processes that businesses are faced with. These would be revolutionary in terms of reducing the costs of business and driving economic growth. Really revolutionary, even more revolutionary than photo sharing or mobile shopping.  Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, dominates because it is able to generate exactly these kinds of logistical efficiencies, FedEx is another company whose competitive advantage comes from IT.

But these changes can’t happen easily (at least not between companies) because they require deep cooperation, the emergence of standards and the security challenges that come with money and goods. Nothing that’s worth doing is ever easy; because these systems are solutions to complex, critical problems between many actors they are largely still on the drawing board. As in the above examples, useful technology takes a long time to diffuse.

It’s not just big business either, education, social care, health, government and manufacture all have big gains to come from the net that haven’t been realised yet. Facebook might be the Internet for some people, but then for some people the invention of the incandescent light bulb was just a new opportunity to experiment with their wardrobe.

When the dotcom bust happened it was at least in part because of a failure to appreciate that the diffusion of technology is slow, that it takes time to install broadband and change habits. Perhaps there’s a quick win for someone in mobile-social-geo-gamifiaction, but it’s myopic to see that as anything other than a fragment of the big picture.

Social Networking is predominant now not because it’s the Internet’s destiny, but because it’s just the beginning, and thinking otherwise is just an inability to see the long view.

* I’m remembering this story from Bill Bryson’s Home, Googling seems to indicate to me that it might actually be a conflation of several stories, with both the Vanderbilts and the Astors seeming to be cited in all kinds of light bulb / fancy dress shenanigans. Then again, Bill Bryson probably has proper researchers.

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