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2017-01-03

I’ve been keeping a list of major new technologies that might not succeed anyway:

The key thing that all of these technologies have in common is that they all have real existence proofs. They all really work. However, working is (usually) just the minimum bar for a technology to be successful.

(Flying cars didn’t make the list because nothing that would really qualify has ever been built. Aside from like, a Cessna.)

Self-driving cars are already on the streets. SpaceX is already making trips to the International Space Station. VR headsets are already on store shelves. (For the record, I’ve been planning this post since before the recent reports about disappointing Christmas sales. And I’m undeterred by the major announcements about self-driving cars.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDWmh0iX7bU
The Airships - Lift Off (1890-1922)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Es3EEEO24E4
HISTORY OF HEAVY DIRIGIBLES & AIRSHIPS HINDENBURG DISASTER 34280

(A couple of documentaries on airships I watched recently. If you’re going to watch one, I recommend the first. The second is subtly biased and spins every problem and setback that airships faced. The pro-airship lobby, man. Don’t get your facts from Big Airship.)

Anyway, dirigibles were making real passenger trips for decades, and played some degree of a role in World War I. And yet, I wouldn’t call them successful, even for the time.

These days a lot of technologists are talking about “moonshots.” But even the Apollo program wasn’t “successful” by this perhaps high but objective standard for a technology. We haven’t been back to the moon since (IIRC) 1974. The famous quote was backwards: “One giant leap for a man, one small step for mankind.” (It should be unsurprising, since progress always comes in small steps.)

For completeness, let me list some technologies that are unambiguously successful:

All of these technologies had doubling times much longer than the average startup lifecycle. In fact, if Charles Babbage had founded a startup, he would’ve gone bankrupt without much to show for it.

“People tend to overestimate exponential curves in the short run, and underestimate them in the long run.”

Not saying none of the technologies on the first list will succeed, just that most probably won’t. The odds aren’t good even once you’ve made it to the starting line. I’d be happy to eat my hat.

…I’ve avoided providing a concrete definition of success because like most things it is hard to pin down. The best definition I’ve got for a successful technology is “universal or else obsolete.”