One of the topics that I talk about in my New Technology class is the concept of adjacent possible. It refers to the fact that any new innovation needs to come from existing innovation. What we have in our environment at any given time determines how we think and what we can invent. For example, it was not until harnessing electricity that we had home appliances like electronic toasters and washing machines. Personal computers were only possible with the microchip which was only possible with integrated circuits which was only possible due to transistors. And this determines our perception of the world. The current state of technology very much creates our perception of what we think is possible and at the same time limits our ability to invent. Perceptions are slow to change and usually we need to experience new technology to change our perception.
In 2000 I gave a lecture on the future. After the lecture I was asked about the future of the car. Two things came to my mind: cars of the future will be electric and self-driving. Today that might be plausible as we hear news about the Google self-driving car and electric cars like Tesla and Nissan Leaf. But in 2000 this was a ridiculous statement. The perception was that petrol was the only way and all efforts of electric cars had been disappointing disasters. And how could a car possibly drive itself?
People today that are used to driving their cars, will be hesitant first when they get into a car that drives it self. For some it will be scary and something to get used to:
People that will be born in the next few years will grow up with self-driving cars and can’t imagine a world where people had to drive themselves. This always happens with new technology since our perception is based on the world we know and grew up with. When automatic elevators were introduced people were scared to enter them because there was no one to operate the elevator. Prior to that a person would control the elevator. Today we would be scared if someone did.
Another way to describe the adjacent possible is to imagine that you are in a room. In this room is all the knowledge of the world as we know it. With that knowledge we get an idea and a door opens and we enter a new room with all the previous knowledge plus the new idea. Hence, ideas come from existing ideas. Now – describe a room far out. Something that needs many other rooms to get to. That is not adjacent possible. You loose the perception and the room looks like science fiction.
In 1964, author and inventor Arthur C. Clark made prediction about the 21st century. Due to the then recent development of the transistor and communication satellites, he said: “These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other, wherever we may be. Where we can contact our friends anywhere on Earth, even if we don’t know their actual, physical location. It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now [which is 2014] for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as from London.” Although we take this for granted in 2014, this was science fiction for people in 1964. Not surprisingly, Clark’s Third Law says: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Perception depends on the old. The way we do things and what we grow up with. With new advances in technology our perceptions change and people slowly adjust as they are exposed to the new technology. I remember back in 2010 when I was explaining the importance of smartphone to people. I was recommending building mobile apps instead of web pages. Some people would laugh in disbelieve and I would then ask them what type of mobile phone they used. The disbelievers had one thing in common. They used a non-smart Nokia phone. It was impossible to explain the importance of mobile apps to those people as they did not understand the potential of smartphones like iPhone. I see a similar thing happening now with Virtual Reality – VR. Try to convince someone about VR that has never tried it.
With new perception our behaviours changes. Many brilliant business ideas were turned down due to old perception of the world. As more and more of services will be accessible by talking with our devices we need to update our perception world.
This text is a new addition to the 2017 edition of my textbook New Technology.