The Analog to Spotify,9/3
Life before digital communication
There is a point of view that says that historical developments are mostly inevitable. Think of Kevin Kelly writing What Technology Wants, with his claim that simultaneous invention shows that when a technology is “ready,” it emerges.
I worry that if you buy into historical inevitability, you are hard-coding hindsight bias into your brain. With hindsight bias, you might see it as inevitable that we have 140 characters but no flying cars. But some people believe that it might have turned out differently, and I put myself in that camp.
I think that digital communication systems were not inevitable as of 1968. What if the Pentagon shuts down Licklider’s pet project? What if Steve Jobs never visits PARC, so Xerox fumbles the future for everyone? I think we could have gone many decades without discovering/inventing computer-based communication.
Let me take you back to the analog era. My parents had a nice middle-brow stereo system. It had KLH speakers. I played vinyl records on a turntable.
The equivalent to Spotify was the Columbia Music record club, which I joined in 1967 or 1968. Each month, the club sent me a catalog with a list of albums available for purchase. They included titles from many companies other than Columbia, but not every record company participated. I selected as many albums as I wanted to purchase, wrote a check, and then mailed back the order form.
A few weeks later, the record albums arrived in the mail. Among my first purchases were Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, and The Doors’ Strange Days.
The point of recounting this is to describe what things were like before digital technology. Long-distance transactions took much more time to complete. They cost more than they do today. A lot more atoms were involved—not just bits.
The world was very different with only analog communication tools. There were digital computers. Big mainframes that you could use to run a regression if you had access. And there were transistors—they were what the Japanese put into small, portable, analog radios that were popular consumer items. But people were not imagining a world where computers were communication tools, much less tools that would make the analog devices obsolete. In fact, as late as 1989 George Gilder’s Microcosm, an otherwise very perceptive book on computing technology, forecast that analog computing would be the next big thing.
In the analog era, overseas phone calls were very expensive. Getting a message out to a mass audience required access to a TV or radio station or the editorial page of a major newspaper.
Large organizations could get things done that ordinary individuals could not. You put your faith into established institutions because there was no real alternative.
If the 21st century seems different, that’s because digital communication technology makes a difference. So if you grant that digital communication technology might have only been developed much later, then you have to see recent history as highly contingent.
You remember Jobs/Wozniak and Licklider and not the dozens/hundreds of other people world wide who were working on the same ideas at the same time. I do believe the world would look fundamentally the same today even if those three men had died in their cribs.
I think of the Kevin Kelly view as tactically correct but strategically wrong.
It's tactically true that circa 2007 Steve Jobs brought the smart phone as we know it into being, and also that a rectangular touchscreen phone would've been invented anyway perhaps 5 years later. So tactically inevitable to be invented at that point.
But what's contingent is how technology and forked paths build and build and build contingently one atop another, interacting with governance and society. The market duopoly of Android versus iOS was NOT inevitable. But from that has grown much of our digital governance and laws. What happens if Chinese manufacturer had succeeded in it's own open source phone OS? So now we have Apple in the West and China ecosystem elsewhere.
Anyway, that's how I reconcile the two views. Moore's Law itself was a highly contingent path, dependent on social agreement between many companies and the government to invest and bring forth a digital future.