Sunday, January 20, 2008

Change of Address

I am moving this blog to Blogspot. If it works properly, all existing posts should be copied across. Archive copies will remain here on my personal website, but will not be updated.

The new location of the blog will be

If you are subscribed to this blog, please make sure that you are using the feedburner feed, as this will be redirected automatically.

Depending on your feed settings, you may receive repeated notification of updated posts when the blog moves. Please bear with me during this move. Normal service will be resumed etc etc.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Stockhausen died last week. I lent my copy of Stimmung to my son's teacher, who played it to the class today.

In 1995, BBC Radio 3 facilitated an exchange between Stockhausen and several young composers. Stockhausen listened to some of music from each composer, and provided some comments and suggestions. In particular, he thought there was too much repetition.

One of the composers, Daniel Pemberton, responded thus: "I know what he means about loops though; that’s because I haven’t got much equipment."

Oh dear, poor Danny. As I pointed out in my earlier post Art and the Enterprise, Stockhausen and his contemporaries didn't exactly have much equipment either. Sometimes innovators have to build their own tools, or forage their own materials, before they can create what they want to create. And sometimes that turns out to be an essential part of the creative process.

Stockhausen is a major figure in twentieth century culture - reviled by those who hate the avant guard on principle, but admired by some of the most popular figures in twentieth century pop music - from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, and from Frank Zappa to Sonic Youth.

Ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Sources: Advice to Clever Children (The Wire, November 1995)
Wikipedia: Karlheinz Stockhausen

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Classifying Innovation

Masood Mortazavi (Sun Microsystems) quotes a distinction from Thomas Hughes between radical and conservative inventions.
"The system-originating inventions can be labeled radical, the system-improving ones conservative." Thomas P. Hughes (2004), American Genesis: A Century of Inventions and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970

Masood claims Java (originally developed by Sun Microsystems) as a radical invention. But what exactly is the system that Java has created? (Obviously we're not just talking here about software systems written in Java - otherwise every minor programming language would count as a radical invention.) Does it mean something like "ecosystem"? And does one's view of this system depend on one's position - inside the Java world or outside?

Perhaps it's noteworthy that I can talk about a Java "world" at all. Perhaps this means that the Java world itself is "The System" for the purposes of Hughes' definition.

But I think the existence of "Systems" or "Worlds" in this sense is pretty subjective. I'd prefer to interpret Hughes' distinction as a spectrum (some inventions are more/less radical than others) rather than a rigid classification.

But there is another more fundamental problem with Hughes' classification, which is that it appears to confuse invention with innovation. There is often a huge gap (mental as well as temporal) between the invention of a device and the emergence of an innovation. The world of recorded music may be traced back to the invention of the gramophone; the world of telecommunications may be traced back to the invention of the telegraph or telephone; but the emergence of these worlds cannot be attributed solely to the invention of the device. Some of the inventions that powered the industrial revolution (including the steam engine, invented by Hero of Alexandria) were known to the ancients, who regarded them as toys and failed to appreciate their radical potential. The iPod doesn't get a Nobel Prize, despite the protestations of Fake Steve Jobs.

As for Java, I'd prefer to regard it as an innovative synthesis of earlier inventions. Object-oriented languages were invented in the 1960s (I learned Simula at college in the 1970s), but the OO world really only emerged in the late 1980s.

So I think the radical/conservative distinction applies better to innovations than to inventions.

There is of course a further problem - the later innovation distorts our perceptions of the earlier invention. It is now practically impossible to view the ancient steam engine without associating it with what it became nearly two thousand years later. Key inventions are disputed (telephone, television, calculus), and the invention itself becomes a social construction.

Which means the classification of inventions and/or innovations becomes an act of interpretation (hermeneutics). Does labelling something as "radical" tell us anything useful, or is it like ranking Reubens above Ingres?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Clockspeed and Competition

Innovation is supposed to grant competitive advantage, among other things. So we might expect the rate of innovation in a given sector to be linked to the degree of competition. (Setting aside for a moment the difficulties in measuring either of these objectively.)

In my very first post on this blog, Technology and Competition, I referred to the Marxian notion that technology is linked to a falling rate of profit, in which case it would make sense for monopolies to resist new technology. I found some support for this idea in a commentary about the Microsoft anti-trust case from the Economist magazine.

Even the advocates of accelerating technological change acknowledge the relevance of competitive forces. In his post Is the Pace of Business Really Increasing? Dave Bayless makes this point when discussing Charles Fine's notion of Clockspeed.
"The barriers to entry to the commercial aircraft and computer operating systems businesses, for example, slow industry clockspeed dramatically."
There are two contrary ways of viewing this. One is to describe technological change as primarily a technological phenomenon, which can then be influenced by secondary socioeconomic factors (e.g. increased by competition and decreased by monopoly). The other is to describe technological change as a social construction, where socioeconomic forces can make technologically trivial changes seem economically important.


Red Queen Effect 2

Dave Bayless has responded to Critiques of the Red Queen Model, including my comments on this blog (Red Queen Effect, see also Rates of Evolution).

Dave chooses to define innovation as "launching new products". Both John Hagel and I believe that there are other kinds of innovation that are important. But I have a more fundamental concern with Dave's definition - if I don't know exactly what counts as a "new product", then I don't know how to count them. If this year's model has a slightly faster chip than last year's model, or a brushed aluminium case, does that count as a "new product"? Let's say the iPod is a new product, but is the iPhone really a new product, or just a fancy redesign of an old product?

Lots of people in product development have a vested interest in labelling everything as "new improved". Pharma companies spend a small fortune looking for variations on existing drugs, so they can get patent protection for the "new" formula. But if you take these descriptions at face value, you get a fundamentally distorted view of the underlying technology change.

This is why I think we need a rigorous model of technology change, which handles some of the complications I raise in my previous blog entries.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Rates of Evolution

Post reformatted to remove unwanted white space

A fascinating paper by Philip D. Gingerich, shows how the observed rate of evolutionary change (measured in darwins), varies hugely according to the measurement context. (See table at foot of this post). In other words, the observed rate of biological evolution appears to be proportional to the proximity of scientists. Does a similar phenomenon apply to technological evolution?

(Note: I am not assuming that technological evolution is the same as biological evolution - merely that looking at one domain may prompt some interesting and important questions for the other domain.)

I have always been wary of the common belief that technological change is accelerating. I think this belief derives from a combination of proximity, selectivity and distorted perception. I think we can sometimes be disproportionately impressed by the glamour of recent technology, and misled by the commercially-driven measures of intellectual property (such as volumes of patent activity and product releases).

But consider these questions:

Did the lightbulb or bicycle change more
  • between the years 1880-1900?
  • or between the years 1980-2000?
Did the computer change more
  • from 1950 to 1970?
  • from 1980 to 2000?

It is certainly true that there have been huge numbers of small modifications to devices such as lightbulbs, bicycles and computers since 1980. There has also been a proliferation of variations and mutations. But will any of this innovation be remembered in fifty years time? From a historical perspective, this kind of detailed technological refinement (or even hyperactivity) may seem rather less significant than the initial burst of technical creativity when the device was taking shape in the first place.



of Observations

Rate of Change


1.5 - 10 years

60,000 darwins

Colonization studies

70 - 300 years

400 darwins

Post-pleistocene mammels

1,000 - 10,000 years

4 darwins

Fossil record

Millions of years

0.1 darwins

Philip D. Gingerich, Rates of Evolution: Effects of Time and Temporal Scaling. Science 14 October 1983: Vol. 222. no. 4620, pp. 159 - 161


Friday, January 26, 2007

ID Card Roll-Out

The UK Government is appointing a Director of Marketing and Communications to help oversee the roll-out of the UK identity card scheme. [Centre for Media and Democracy, via Fish and Chip Papers]

In other words, technology adoption is seen as a matter for PR (public relations).

It is certainly true that there are elements of marketing in any technology adoption project. But it would be curious if the sociopolitical as well as technological complexities of the proposed ID card scheme were solved by spin.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Call Forwarding

cross-posted to Trustblog

According to legend, the automatic telephone exchange was invented by an undertaker (Almon Strowger) who believed his business was being redirected to his competitors by corrupt telephone operators.

David Lazarus
reports a vulnerability in call forwarding, whereby a fraudster persuades ATT to redirect a pizza parlour's calls to him. In this case, the fraud involved collecting credit card numbers, but as Lazarus suggests, this scam could also be used by a competitor to steal business.

Further comments on Bruce Schneier's blog, where greygeek points out the historical irony of the Strowger switch.

Fraud erodes the benefits of technological progress. What were the original benefits of the automatic telephone exchange? It was efficient, impersonal and less vulnerable to bribery and corruption. These are some of the benefits of the classic bureaucracy as identified by Max Weber - and many technological innovations provide similar benefits.

And now the benefits of Strowger's innovation are apparently reversed. Don't assume that technology progress is always onward and upward.

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