First published in Switch and Shift
As we evolved, what separated us from Capuchin monkeys, who use stones to smash open nuts, or Chimpanzees, who use sticks to fish insects out of tree holes? Somewhere, we started making tools rather than finding them, using bones and sticks to make clubs or sharpening stones to make knives and spears. This was the birth of physical technology. Eventually, someone figured out that he could trade his excess meat for someone else’s extra spear, making both of them better off. He created a new social technology; “the market” and social technology started going beyond just preservation of small tribes and families. Economies rely on these two things, physical technologies to enable people to create products and services that are worth trading and social technologies that smooth the way for cooperation and trading those products and services between non-relatives or even absolute strangers with the same ease and trust.
Progress of physical technology in each generation is built on the successes and failures of those that have gone before. We observe the same evolutionary process for automobile design progressing from the Model T to Google’s driverless car, controlled by artificial intelligence. Or for mobile phones going from a size that could be used for self defense to so small, that taxi drivers worldwide keep getting unexpected tips as the phones slip out of our pockets and handbags. However, all this would not come to be or even be beneficial without effective social technologies.
ZipCar combined an hourly rental revenue model with a P2P market place to disrupt the traditional rental car market. Home Depot combined the suburban-superstore retail format and combined it with DIY building supplies to create a new business model. In 2000, Ericsson combined this new touchscreen physical technology invented in 1970s with mobile phones invented in 1973 by Motorola to create the world’s first touch mobile phone. However, it was Apple that combined this new physical technology of touch smartphones with its social technology of a deliberately built fanatic Apple fan base to really unlock value. Google has since challenged Apple’s dominance by combining that with yet another social technology innovation of giving away its operating system to a community of open-source developers and is winning on market share while Apple still dominates in terms of financial success.
Looking into the future, there are two massive social technology innovations currently playing out that provoke some serious thought.
Universities have existed for centuries as a social technology for the production of universal knowledge. However, it is only in the recent years that combining universities with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) we have opened two incredible opportunities.
– What happens when we truly have universal access to university based knowledge?
– How would the knowledge universities create change, if it is to become truly universal across geographies and local contexts?
Paper currency replaced gold and silver coins a while ago as a new physical technology for money. But the social technology has stayed the same for centuries, money as a store of value backed by a central authority like a king or a democratically elected government. Crypto-currencies have emerged as a new physical technology for money. Initiatives like Bitcoin have combined this with a social technology of disaggregated independent store of value not backed by any central authority.
Is this a first step towards functional democracies with disaggregated authority and true public decision making on allocation of resources?
How will the concentration of military resources with governments interact with this evolution?