New contexts for old ideas

In a tech industry that is obsessively if not pathologically dedicated to the Next Big New Thing, it’s hard to make the case for refining, reinterpreting, and consolidating what we already have. Bill Buxton does so eloquently in a recent BusinessWeek column, The Long Nose of Innovation, which I found by way of Kevin Schofield. You may recall Bill’s name from this introduction to our podcast interview about his book, Sketching User Experiences. In the BusinessWeek column Bill writes:

The heart of the innovation process has to do with prospecting, mining, refining, and goldsmithing. Knowing how and where to look and recognizing gold when you find it is just the start. The path from staking a claim to piling up gold bars is a long and arduous one.

That resonates powerfully with me. I’ve always been a prospecter, miner, refiner, and goldsmith who finds new value in mature technologies like NNTP conferencing, HTTP GET, and screencasting. Bill goes on to say:

Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old.

We might quibble. Was the web 10 years old in 1997? Yes and no. But I’ll grant poetic license because I think the statement is mostly true, and I’ve been wrestling with some of the consequences that flow from it.

Here’s one. Advocates for powerful ideas and methods that are long extant but have yet to fully bear fruit may tend to become nostalgic, appear misguided, act bitter, lose focus. These are counterproductive behaviors. So how do you avoid them? How do you stay the course, keep your eye on the ball, move forward, remain excited, and find ways to explore the same old things in new and different ways?

One answer, I think, is to keep engaging with different people in different contexts. Yesterday I was showing and discussing some things that I’ve known for so long, and documented so extensively, that I worried about sounding like a broken record. But in that context it was fresh information, a new perspective. People got excited. And their excitement rekindled my passion.

9 Comments

  1. “Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old.”

    +1 that is is probably overstated a bit, but they keyword you used is “mature”. The truth in Bill’s assertion is that lasting impact comes from maturity. My gadget-loving friends often covet the new shiny toy, but wait for the next generation so they can reap the benefits of a more mature product. (The 3G video iPod is a great example, and the iPhone is another.)

  2. “Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old.”

    I’ve long said the best example of this sort of thing, which I term “hiding in full view”, is instant messaging as we know it being the heir to Unix “talk”. I have a vivid memory of sitting at my computer as late as 1997 engaged in a Unix talk session with a friend half a continent away. Of course this was in the day when shell accounts came with an ISP subscription. But there was AIM and its kind hiding in full view. I only wish I could have seen it.

  3. “The 3G video iPod is a great example, and the iPhone is another”

    I agree with this completely. Who knew back in 2001 what good a 5GB first gen iPod was good for? It wasn’t good for online sales of music as iTunes wasn’t in service. It couldn’t play back videos (those some hackers attempted to make it work). Now it’s the full universe of devices, and has further morphed into a telephone that plays music and videos. In 2011 we will see the full maturation of the iPod.

  4. Anything that is too cutting edge scares many people off…..even those who claim to look for the next next thing. Early adopters are often ridiculed by the masses, only to have the object of their adoption become mainstream down the line.

    I think that the real problem is that there are so many new things out there in the last decade that we cannot see them. It is my complaint about where online social media tools are going….there is so much noise, that nobody (but a few) can be heard. Even those with useful and interesting things to say.

    I get sad sometimes that I am just part of the noise. And them wammo, someone turns out to be listening.

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