Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Via Appia or I-95?

In a previous post I had been about to assert that truly disruptive technologies only come along rarely, and then cite the automobile as a classic example. But my spidey sense started to tingle. Just what was the disruption?

Intuitively, it's difficult to look at, say, a satellite photo of the US eastern seaboard and claim that the automobile hasn't been disruptive. On the other hand, anyone who's ever tried to navigate, say, central London in a car knows that the even the automobile hasn't completely swept aside everything that came before.

But wait. Is it the automobile that's been disruptive, or the paved road? The pattern of commerce and (other) empire-building spurring roads spurring towns and cities spurring commerce and empire-building goes back at least to the Romans. Even paving with tar goes back a long way, to 8th century Baghdad, according to Wikipedia. In Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin reports macadamised roads in Australia in the 1830s, half a century before Benz's patent.

Along the same lines, it was a long time before automobiles surpassed trains. In the US, one could argue that it took the interstate system -- more and much better paved roads -- to really get American car culture going, and to this day it is possible to live comfortably in major metropolises (albeit mostly outside the US) without access to a car.

Again, there's no way to claim the automobile hasn't had a major disruptive effect, but the simple narrative of "the automobile changed everything" just doesn't hold up.

Likewise, was it the internet that changed everything, or the web, or fiber optics, or Moore's law, or developments in software engineering, or ...? The answer is probably "all of the above, and more."

1 comment:

earl said...

So, are you saying everything changed everything, or nothing changed anything?

You might consider the invention of place notation in counting, and particularly the invention of zero, or the invention of alphabetic writing.

The fact is everyone stands on the shoulders of giants, but when I consider that people who were born before Kittyhawk saw the day when man landed on the moon, I have to think something changed everything.