When a bunch of techies are beavering away on a new tool, it can be tricky to figure out:
Is this a genuinely useful new thing? Or is it just some expensive prototype, a pipe dream that’ll never take off?
You see this question raised lately in the debate over “Web3” — the idea that the existing Internet is too monopolized, and a new one should be built using decentralized blockchains. But the question is perennial. All throughout history, people have debated whether nascent technologies will ever be viable enough to take off.
For example, the early mobile phone was mocked as something so wildly expensive that only self-important finance blowhards would ever find it useful. (Seriously: At a party in NYC in 1996, I pulled out a mobile phone I’d rented for a weekend for some in-the-field reporting; everyone at the party, all young folks employed in new media, laughed and laughed.) In contrast, the Segway was heavily touted — by some of the biggest innovators in technology, with actual sales records, like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos — as an invention so catalytic that cities would be re-engineered around it. Whoops.
So, how do you tell one from the other? When you see a new, nascent technology being proffered by its inventor, how do you know whether it’s something that could become huge?
Separating desire from viability
There are two related questions here: a) Could this new prototype ever work well enough and affordably enough that it could be in wide(r) use? And more alchemically, b) does it offer enough people a sufficiently interesting and useful new ability that they’d change their behavior around it? Do we desire this new thing?
I think b) is, of the two, the much harder question to answer. There are a lot of convoluted reasons why a technology becomes desirable. Sometimes it’s because the tech solves a problem that’s low on Maslow’s pyramid, like clean-water engineering. Everyone wants that. (Indeed, many…