Talk by Paul Saffo

A couple weeks ago, I went to a talk by Paul Saffo down at Xerox PARC. I knew very little about Paul Saffo, other than that he was a well-known futurist, but I had heard good references to him in enough places that I wanted to see what he had to say. So I went.

It was a great talk. If you ever get the chance to see Saffo speak, do so. He’s an excellent public speaker, comfortable in front of a crowd and always ready with an appropriate and interesting anecdote. Moreover, he’s got something to say. He has a coherent viewpoint that has stayed relatively consistent over time; several points in his talk were similar to points he had made in older articles that I had read on his website before going to the talk (go see my footnote for more discussion of one of those essays).

Saffo centered his talk about the well-known S-curve of technology adoption (PDF file). But unlike most people, he didn’t talk about the steep part of the curve, where everybody’s adopting the technology and the investors are making more money than they could have imagined. His talk was focused on the flat part of the S-curve, long before the steep part. As he quoted, “It takes twenty years to be an overnight success.” His first example was Douglas Engelbart and his famous 1968 demo, where he debuted the mouse, a graphical user interface, hypertext, word processing, dynamic file linking, and many other innovations. Note that it took until at least the Macintosh in 1984 for such innovations to reach the mass market, and until Windows in 1990 for them to become commonplace. Twenty years. In the years following the demo, Saffo said that Engelbart must have felt like a genius elevated to tragic hero, as people took his ideas and ran with them, but in stupid and brain-damaged ways that made it clear they didn’t see the whole picture. Saffo joked that Engelbart must have wanted to say “Wait! Wait! No, you don’t understand!” Thus, Saffo’s thesis for the talk was that the secret to innovation was to pay attention to the flat part of the technology curve. There’s a lot of stuff there that is ripe to be exploited.

He pointed out that most people’s tendency to project the future linearly leads them to be wrong twice if the technology S-curve is the right model. They both overestimate the immediate future (where the S-curve is flat, and they’re trying to project a linear rise), but underestimate the further future (where the S-curve rises above the linear projection). So his Rule #1 of Innovation was know where you are on the S-curve. In particular, to get a short-term success, look for something that’s been failing for twenty years. That means it’s just about finished the flat part of the S-curve and is ready for the steep rise where somebody can make money off of it.

He then bemoaned the fate of a technology forecaster (the term he uses for himself rather than futurist). The problem is that when the future happens, it happens late and different and in an unlikely fashion. For a technology forecaster to be credible, their predictions must be plausible, consistent and believable. Reality is not constrained by any such characteristics. So the outlandish will often come to pass before the credible. His example was flight. When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, they invented a one person aircraft. If you’d asked them how long it would be until personal aircraft were as common as cars, they would have thought it reasonably soon. If you’d described a 747 to them, and said that was going to happen first, they would have laughed at you. Outlandish before the credible.

Rule #2 of Innovation was that innovation is built on failure, not success. His example was that interactive television was a total failure. It imploded in the early 90s, leaving “one very important byproduct, a community of laid-off C++ programmers who were now expert in multimedia design, and out on the street looking for the next big thing.” (see his article for more discussion) Sure enough, the web appeared as an idea, they all leaped on it, and look where we are today. But if there hadn’t been this ready pool of talented programmers available, would the web as we know it exist? Saffo finds it unlikely.

So his advice to the aspiring entrepreneur is to look for total failures and see if they’ve matured enough that they’re almost through the flat part of the curve (“look for diamonds in the bubble rubble”). In particular, something is ripe for takeoff when people dismiss it and make fun of it. Interactive television was one example. Push technology was another; why was push technology a disaster? Because the vast majority of people were connected to the net by dialup at that point, and nobody wants data pushed to them when they have to pay for bandwidth. In an always-on broadband world, the equation changes, and we’re already starting to see that with aggregators and their kin.

Why is the flat part of the curve so long? Why does it take twenty years? Why are things slow? Because people are stubborn. They hate change. It’s not a coincidence that the flat part is 20-30 years, an interval that also corresponds to a human generation. That’s how long it takes for a new generation to grow up comfortable with the new technology.

Saffo then moved onto the second focus of his talk, which was the declaration that the Information Revolution is over. It’s won. Information is no longer scarce, a precious commodity to be husbanded. It is mobile. It is ubiquitous. It has become media, and with its ubiquity, it has become personal media. In fact, he says that a technology has matured when it becomes media. His examples were that television was invented in the 1930s, but it took until the 1950s for broadcast television to become a standard, that time sharing computers were invented in the 1960s but email was not common until the 1980s, or that client-server computers were developed in the 1980s but took until the mid-1990s to become the Web. He also noted that the cycle appears to be quickening (peer-to-peer became Napster almost immediately). His prediction for the next wave would be for sensors to become “smartifacts” (see this article or this interview for further discussion).

The Media Revolution (analogous to the Information Revolution) is happening now. We are experiencing the transformation of media from mass media to personal media. The selection of media is quickly becoming tied to our selection of physical artifacts. His example was that he realized that his Mercedes was basically a computer with wheels. You’re paying for the software on those myriad of chips, from the fuel injection systems to the electronic stability control. In fact, with the addition of Tele Aid to Mercedes cars, some of the software is now subscription-based. He told the funny story of how, at the end of his free first year, a Tele Aid operator called and talked to him in his car and tried to convince him that he should renew the service. He said it wouldn’t be long until the car was given away, and all the money would be made on subscription fees. And I’m not so sure he’s wrong.

Another interesting point was that the Media Revolution entails the death of interfaces. The idea is removed from the vocabulary. You interact with media in various ways, but you don’t need an interface as a window to some remote world of information. You read the newspaper, or you watch television. When the interface fades to invisibility, then the technology has turned the corner. Donald Norman makes the same point in his book The Invisible Computer. The iPod is a media object in that sense; we don’t think of it as technology with all the negative connotations. It’s just like a walkman. And that’s why it continues to outsell its competitors (I own an Archos Jukebox that is a pain to use).

Along the same lines, he mentioned how technology enables the next round of media. Voice over the Internet (aka VoIP) is a technology. It’s kind of lame. Very few people use it. However, iChat AV makes using VoIP so easy that you don’t think of it as a technology. You just click on your friend and start talking. It’s so easy that you’ve now created a shared space. John Perry Barlow has a nice account of how it changes how you think about communication. In fact, it’s so easy that it will probably replace phones in the future to the point where Saffo predicts that the touch tone pad will disappear. Who would dial a number when you can just click?

Okay, the rest of my notes are pretty disjointed so I’ll just type them up (this is what happens when I don’t type up my notes immediately after the talk). He talked about the rise of personal robots, and noted that most Roomba owners had named their Roomba, and 25% had taken their Roomba on vacation. He talked about the rise of gnat cameras (as also discussed by David Brin in The Transparent Society). He said that even though the invasion of Iraq saw the first extensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in war, we’ll know that UAVs have really arrived when we see them with a CNN logo filming the next war.

Then we got into the question and answer session, so the thoughts get even more disconnected…

  • One interesting idea is that the 802.* protocols for wireless internet are merely enabling technologies. What will be the media built on top of them? This is in direct analogy to iChat being built on the VoIP technology?
  • Search as a technology is almost dead. In fact, Google’s IPO will pretty much signify its death in the same way that Netscape’s IPO signified the death of the browser as technology rather than media.
  • Cyberspace is becoming cyberbia and appealing to the clueless masses. I can’t figure out if this is my thought or something Saffo said, but it was in my notes so I’m typing it. It falls into the technology becoming media viewpoint, so it could go either way.
  • Read the science fiction of kids today to find out what technology will look like 10 to 15 years out, because those teenagers will grow up and want to build what they read about. Like how many aspects of cyberpunk are being built now.
  • He mentioned the Gramine Bank, and how they are giving cell phones to Bangladeshi women to turn them into businesspeople as mobile phone booths. I googled to find this article.
  • He forecasts that cheap Faraday cages will become increasingly popular as people seek to protect their devices and their data from interference from the outside. A Faraday raincoat would be especially popular he suspects. You could sell RFID disablers to the paranoid.
  • Back to science fiction, he talks about the possibility of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game scenario. He also recommends Vernor Vinge’s books. Since I love both authors, I thought that was cool.
  • It’s all about dematerializing objects, substituting bits for atoms (of which he noted that Nicholas Negroponte was the most well-known proponent).
  • Step back for a larger perspective. I have scrawled in the margin “McLuhan fish water discovery”, which Google informs me is probably a reference to this Marshall McLuhan quote: “It�s like the fish in water, he said, we don�t know who discovered water but we know it wasn�t a fish. A pervasive medium is always beyond perception.” The point being that technology is merely technology as long as it’s visible. When it becomes invisible, when it becomes ubiquitous, then it’s turned into media, and is like water to a fish. For an innovator, this encourages two lines of attack: one is to make the invisible visible again and seek to improve it, and the other is to figure out ways to make the visible invisible, turning technology into media.

All in all, a great talk. Lots to think about, and more importantly, it provided a nice framework to tie together some ideas I had and gives me some terminology to start using with those ideas.

Saffo spun off many amusing quotes during the talk. Since they were often tangential, I’ll just collect them all here:

  • The S-curve makes “venture capitalists sleep like babies; they sleep for two hours and then wake up and cry.”
  • On why he’s a good public speaker, “I’m shallow, glib, and speak in sound bites.”
  • He asked the audience who the #1 business author was. Many incorrect answers were shouted out. Then he revealed the answer: Scott Adams, author of Dilbert and the associated books. I don’t remember the point that he was trying to make, but it’s amusing nonetheless.
  • On the startup culture, “You have big ideas, not a lot of money, and little adult supervision. So the impossible happens.”
  • On failed innovators, “They mistook a clear view for a short distance.” In other words, they could see where they wanted to go, but didn’t realize that it was a heck of a long climb from where they were. Pretty much sums up technology innovation in a nutshell.
  • (paraphrased from my poor notes)”Four centuries ago, you knew a form of media had arrived when the Pope opposed it. Today’s equivalent is Jack Valenti, of the MPAA – he’s always wrong. The movie industry opposed VCRs at the start; now it’s a major revenue stream for them. Now they oppose recordable DVDs and Napster. Guess what…”
  • “All great civilizations fails by reducing everything to entertainment.” Just like the Roman Empire and bread and circuses.
  • “You gotta be nuts to be an innovator!”


Footnote to Saffo’s talk

This doesn’t really have anything to do with Saffo’s talk, which is why it’s in a footnote, but I really liked his article on information surfing. Written in 1989, long before the rise of the web, Saffo projects the idea of information surfing. I especially like this bit:

We have become a society of specialists, each knowing more and more about less and less.

An information surfing future will be one of generalists capable of teasing knowledge and understanding out of large information flows. Information surfers will be pattern finders applying new intellectual skills and working in close concert with radically more powerful information tools.

That is exactly the role that I am moving towards in my career. I no longer have to know everything or even anything myself. I just have to know enough to know where to look it up or who to ask. As specialists become more and more wrapped up in their individual subfields, I think there will be a greater call for people who can tie things together. My dream job was described in Stand on Zanzibar, a sci-fi novel by John Brunner written in 1968. One of the main characters is hired by the government as a “Synthesist, Dilettante Department”. As he puts it, when told there’s too much to learn,

“Of course you can’t if you’ve been taught the way I have, on the basis of memorising facts, but what one ought to learn is how to extract patterns! You don’t bother to memorise the literature – you learn to read and keep a shelf of books. You don’t memorise log and sine tables; you buy a slide-rule or learn to punch a public computer! …You don’t have to know everything. You simply need to know where to find it when necessary.”

So his job is to go to the library, read up on disparate fields, make any connections that he can, and report them upwards so that the scientists involved can coordinate their research. Insights in one field applied to the other. Such a cool job. Anyway. I find it interesting that the quote from Brunner mirrors Saffo’s quote so well despite preceding it by twenty years. Which ties back into Saffo’s talk, so if you got here by the link, go back now to read about the talk.

8 thoughts on “Talk by Paul Saffo

  1. Where to begin?

    How about here: Thanks for the informative post. You have convinced me that I want to see this guy speak, and that even if I fail to do so, I just got a significant slice of his value from your post.

    Also, it occurs to me that the big thing coming down the Pike that hasn’t yet hit is the non-human personal assistant. We’ve made remarkable strides in this category over the past however-many years, but it hasn’t really been successfully framed this way. It occurs to me that the semantic web has great potential here, and that the ability to be a generalist will be greatly enhanced (or perhaps supplanted?) thereby.

  2. • “All great civilizations fails by reducing everything to entertainment.” Just like the Roman Empire and bread and circuses.
    which reminds me of the following passage:

    p.372
    “There are only two industries. This has always been true,” said Madame Ping, … “There is the industry of things, and the industry of entertainment. The industry of things comes first. It keeps us alive. But making things is easy now that we have the Feed. This is not a very interesting business anymore.
    “After people have the things they need to live, everything else is entertainment. Everything. This is Madame Ping’s business.”
    (Neal Stephenson, “The diamond age” or, a young lady’s illustrated primer, paperback, p.372)

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