Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Gleick’s ‘Information’: The key problem with innovation is grasping differences

One of the key problems of innovation, James Gleick notes in The Information, is that new things tend to be seen too much in the context of the old.

alexander_graham_telephone_in_newyork
alexander_graham_telephone_in_newyork

One of the key problems of innovation, James Gleick notes in The Information, is that new things tend to be seen too much in the context of the old.

The danger of this is as a result of that context, the extent of change tends to be underestimated. In discussing how communications experts of the time greeted the telephone, for example, he notes that they saw it simply as “the talking telegraph.” That was true, as far as it goes, but it turns out that that wasn’t nearly far enough.

This was, Gleick writes, perhaps a bit harshly on us humans, “the usual failure of imagination in the face of a radically new technology.”

One of the key problems of innovation, James Gleick notes in The Information, is that new things tend to be seen too much in the context of the old.

The danger of this is as a result of that context, the extent of change tends to be underestimated. In discussing how communications experts of the time greeted the telephone, for example, he notes that they saw it simply as “the talking telegraph.” That was true, as far as it goes, but it turns out that that wasn’t nearly far enough.

This was, Gleick writes, perhaps a bit harshly on us humans, “the usual failure of imagination in the face of a radically new technology.”

What was the experts’ specific failure? Gleick is quite clear about this. The experts saw the ways in which the telephone was similar to the telegraph, but failed to understand how it was in other ways quite different.

“The telegraph demanded literacy; the telephone embraced orality. A message sent by telegraph had first to be written, encoded, and tapped out by a trained intermediary. To employ the telephone, one just talked. A child could use it.” All that may not have mattered to experts who already were tech-savvy, literate and adult, but it sure changed life for many others.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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