Uses, not innovations, drive technology

The other day my daughter (just turned 6) said that she wanted to be a scientist because she liked mixing things up and watching the colours change. That comment reminded me of the time she turned almost half the kitchen blue playing with blue food colouring. Cool! I can see the attraction.

Most interesting to me, was that she equated science with a practical, and physical use rather than some technical definition that an adult might come up with.

Science is a verb in her world.

The folks at 37signals found this extended book review over at the New Yorker. It was called “What Else is New” by Steve Shapin and is subtitled :

How uses, not innovations, drive human technology


“Carl Sagan once said, ‘We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.’

If he meant that we are unfamiliar with the principles on which the technology around us works, he was right—there’s an enormous gap between the knowledge of makers and the knowledge of users—but this is exactly as it should be.

As users, we typically want our technology to be a black box; we don’t want to be bothered with adjusting it, monitoring it, repairing it, or knowing about its inner workings. A sure sign of the success of a technology is that we scarcely think of it as technology at all.”

And later on….

“Knowing about technology is not the same thing as understanding the scientific theories involved.

Just as innovators commonly understand the fundamentals of a technology better than subsequent users, so users can acquire knowledge that would never have occurred to the innovators.”

And thank goodness for that. Many innovations have a serendipitous accident somewhere in their product history. The famous 3m Post-it notes apparently came about when the product team were trying to make a different kind of glue – among many other innovations.

The Shapin piece is actually a book review called “The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900” (Oxford; $26), David Edgerton who makes a strong case for technology evolving through use rather than design however I think it doesn’t matter either way.

“He thinks that traditional ways of understanding technology, technological change, and the role of technology in our lives, have been severely distorted by what he calls “the innovation-centric account” of technology”.

Technology in Education?

Some time back in Creativity & Innovation Linked I looked more closely at the work of Sir Ken Robinson on reshaping the education architecture. Hopefully,  current and future generations of students will be better prepared for the type of world they are going to be working in. We live in a world where technology of all kinds is driving change, regardless of design intent and Robinsons creativity boosting seems like the right approach.

One of the wonderful things about being a parent is seeing the world through your children’s eyes. There seems to be so many possibilities for them to discover ways of working and engaging with the future – most probably in jobs we haven’t thought of yet.

Consequently the Edgerton book sounds like it is a bit stuck in the past to me;  I hasten to add I have only read this essay about it. I do support the idea of learning from history but the impact of technology is far greater than it was a few decades ago; and I’m not so convinced that an opinion on whether use or innovation drives technology is even a useful question.

We only have to go back 10 years when the public internet was just starting for most people to see how ideas on the role of technology in society have changed dramatically.

Here is an book review of ‘Technolopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology‘ by Neil Postman as reviewed by Glen Engel-Cox in 1996. I also remember Postman’s most famous book called ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ in 1985 which he broadly said that anything on TV had to be entertainment because that was the nature of the medium to reduce everything down to that level. Postman died in 2003 and was a media theorist and a conservative on many levels.

“Postman proposes a goal for American education — no longer, he says, can we simply train people for employment (the current state of education), but we must instill in people a purpose. His proposed goal is the betterment of humanity.

To achieve this goal, he suggests that we get back to the basics in our schools, but by this he means the study of the underlying assumptions of our culture rather than just basic skills. That is, he posits a curriculum that includes the history of every subject as part of that subject, including the history (or ideology) of history itself.

Only by understanding how we came to be in the place we stand now, will we be able to move forward.”.

So far so good – but the general thesis of the book exaggerates the negative impacts of technology on society while missing many of the benefits.

I do agree that a fuller understanding of the ideologies of our times is very useful. (Astonishing Fact: The earlier book Amusing Ourselves to Death inspired the Roger Waters‘ album “Amused to Death“. ) Another review of Technopoly and more on the wisdom of Neil Postman by Prof. Adrian Monck.  The Return of History also has some great ideas on the value of appreciating history, thanks again Pop Philosophy.

Technology and Future Work

Sometimes people wonder why I blog on so may different areas of interest when much of my work time,  is spent on sales and marketing activities usually connected with some new software project or s/w application.

Well, I even wonder about that myself (the topic range) but in essence some of my key skills are in research and analysis and lateral thinking is almost a hobby. On a good day I am happy to work on applied research for clients. Delighted would be a better word for it. However much of the time, clients are more interested in other services.

One of my most enjoyable jobs ever was as Research & Analysis Director of a small merchant banking company I helped to start-up back in the early 90’s. It is one thing to enjoy learning and thinking but quite a different matter to get paid for it. Being paid for research was my dream role and still is.

My daughter sometimes asks me about my work and I do find it hard to explain how lots of thinking, talking and listening with other people is work but it is.  Knowledge based work is the new reality for us and the next generations as well.

I’d like to think (sorry bout the pun) that one of the benefits I can bring to work projects is the creative generalist focus wrapped around some very specialised and focused subject matter skills and wide ranging experience. That includes extended musical performance experience and a keen interest in fractals and other patterns  to really get the neurons jiving.

Maybe, just maybe, Edgerton and Postman were both missing the refractive highlights of that “most beautiful obsession” – music as described in a new book below.

Your Brain On Music. (Note:Paperback Plume Books, 28 August 2007 for NZ)

This is from the introduction to the book by Daniel Levitin himself. Daniels Your Brain on Music website is also an eloquent and engaging experience where you can navigate visually or via text. Go here to find out what is on Daniel Levitins Ipod?

“I began to wonder why some musicians become household names while others languish in obscurity. I also wondered why music seemed to come so easily to some and not others. Where does creativity come from? Why do some songs move us so and others leave us cold? And what about the role of perception in all of this, the uncanny ability of great musicians and engineers to hear nuances that most of us don’t?

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (For NZ Customers)

These questions led me back to school for some answers. While still working as a record producer, I drove down to Stanford University twice a week with Sandy Pearlman to sit in on neuropsychology lectures by Karl Pribram. I saw that psychology was the field that held the answers to some of my questions – questions about memory, perception, creativity, and the common instrument underlying all of these: the human brain. But instead of coming away with answers to my questions, I came away with more questions – as is often the case in science. Each new question opened my mind to an appreciation for the complexity of music, of the world, and of the human experience.”

and later in the same Chapter

“The mind has been opened up in the last few years by the exploding field of neuroscience and the new approaches in psychology due to new brain imaging technologies, drugs able to manipulate neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and plain old scientific pursuit.

Less well known are the extraordinary advances we have been able to make in modelling how our neurons network thanks to the continuing revolution in computer technology. We are coming to understand computational systems in our head like never before.

Language now seems to be substantially hardwired into our brains. Even consciousness itself is no longer hopelessly shrouded in a mystical fog, but is rather something that emerges from observable physical systems. But no-one until now has taken all this new work together and used it to elucidate what is for me the most beautiful human obsession.

Your brain on music is a way to understand the deepest mysteries of human nature. That is why I wrote this book.”

(Note: If you enjoyed ‘My Brain on Music’ you may also enjoy this video by Jeff Hawkins on How Brain Science Will Change Computing from TED. Hawkins believes that the human neocortex doesn’t work like a processor; rather, it relies on a memory system that stores and plays back experiences to help us predict, intelligently, what will happen next.
Mike McCready and Malcolm Gladwell discuss how technology that analyzes the mathematical patterns in songs can help the music business identify potential hits.
The Stanford Medical “research team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory. Peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements—when seemingly nothing was happening.” includes a 20 sec video of an MRI scan and other details – Daniel Levittin was a co-author of the study.)

Understanding the deepest mysteries of human nature sounds way more interesting; here is a video link to close out the post. Comments are from the 37 Signals blog post.

Update: The video was moved – Part 1 is below.

The other 5 clips of the full interview.

9 Minute Version: David Byrne and Daniel Levitin conversation

“The singer/songwriter/artist/author discusses music, science, memory, and more with the producer/neuroscientist. Fascinating discussion. Some idea I liked were ecological validity – looking at the whole experience in the real world.”

Mr Byne said about the book – All reviews of Your Brain On Music

“I loved reading that listening to music coordinates more disparate parts of the brain than almost anything else–and playing music uses even more! Despite illuminating a lot of what goes on this book doesn’t “spoil” enjoyment- it only deepens the beautiful mystery that is music.”

And Salon Magazine, September 2006

“Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s wonderful new book explains why music is a critical step in human evolution and why the songs we loved as teens remain stuck on ‘play’ in our heads.. . ‘This Is Your Brain on Music’ is delightful. Levitin explains the intricacies of two difficult subjects — neuroscience and music theory — without ever losing the reader.”

and the Cincinnati Public Library

“Some scientists have the gift of writing so clearly that it’s like being taken backstage by a magician and shown all the tricks-oh, that’s how it’s done. Daniel J. Levitin writes lucidly and humorously. . . absolutely fascinating.”

and by Mark Coleman is the author of “Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money.”

“In the absence of a unifying theory as in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” or a conceptual hook as in “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Levitin’s book demands a reasonable level of reader interest in the subject. (Frankly, the author is better at breezing through Music Theory 101 or Brain Chemistry for Dummies than at keeping a personal anecdote on the leash.)” (all reviews of Your Brain on Music)

For the full hour Byrne + Levitin conversation.

Does use drive technology more than innovation design and does it even matter?
As always let me know what you think.

Science is looking far more interesting these days especially when a  dash of technology and a dash of music has been added. Who knows what uses our children will make of our experiences and our technologies.

I’m looking forward to more adventures in the science of food colouring! as my daughter continues defining and redefining her view of the world whichever way it happens.