Wall Street

Describing the impact of innovation is a challenging task. Even if you narrow the question a little and focus on technology only, it doesn’t get a lot easier. Searching for a reasonably current example, something that most of you have experienced in your personal lives, I turned to cinema. And I found a compelling story in Oliver Stone’s two Wall Street movies. Or rather, between the two.

Granted, both are usually considered to present the story of untamed predator capitalism. However, I’ll take a quite different perspective, focusing on the technology use depicted in the movies. The following two screenshots are all that we need to immerse in that story behind the story.


Back in 1987, cell phones did already exist. But they had the size and weight of bricks, and don’t ask for battery life, signal strength, or anything like your calendar or address book. Regarding your office phones, well, chords were the norm. And did you spot the green computer screens in the background? Those machines could certainly crunch some numbers, but don’t ask for graphical user interfaces or any of the user experience we are taking for granted today. Those were the days, and they seem long gone.


Now, my story begins to unfold as we move fast forward to 2009. Within those 22 years, quite a few things happened (and I’m not talking about Gordon Gecko‘s fate). Most obviously, cell phones shrunk to almost negligible size, you can now hide them in the palm of your hand. Wow. And they seem to have replaced a good portion of land line communication, and killed the telephone chord at the same time. Impressive. So we have made some progress in telephones, making them lighter, easier to use, and freeing them of their tether. That’s the story at first glance. But that’s not really a story worth telling.

It is only at second glance that we realise the big breakthrough that took place in the background: all the computing power on that 1987 office desk is dwarfed by the capabilities of that one little cell phone in the 2009 scene. That tiny smart phone gets pretty close to “the world at your finger tips“, something that was beyond imagination only 22 years before. That is a quite remarkable development in technology, and its impact is what I’d like to dwell upon.

We see technology work at two separate layers. One is easily visible, with some impact, but no big drama. The second is far less apparent, but it has already changed the world forever. The difference between the two is easily expressed in Brian Arthur’s terminology, it’s the difference between a single technology and a technology domain.

The single technology in our case is the telephone, the simple tool we use to communicate over longer distances. It serves a clear purpose, and it is improved gradually over time. Starting out from the 1987 brick phones, you might even have predicted the miniaturisation that occurred. The impact of the advances in the single technology is in a gradual performance increase, implemented through a succession of new generations of cell phones. But there’s nothing really dramatic about it: phones just became better, cheaper, easier to use. But they still are phones, providing the same basic functionality as in 1987.

Technology domains work their magic in a less obvious way, and over longer periods of time. Remember that they co-evolve with society and the economy in a complex process of mutual adaptation. In our specific case, there are even two technology domains: telecommunications and information technologies. It is their development since 1987, their blending, and their co-evolution with society that have added many additional functionalities and transformed the dumb phone that we knew in 1987 into the indispensable tool for almost everything. More precisely, they created a trillion dollar market in mobile devices and mobile services. None of that was foreseeable in 1987, even though the initial building blocks existed back then. But the impact is nevertheless tremendous. Think about a day without your smart phone: How would you communicate? Access information? Manage your time? Navigate the city? Spend some of your leasure? This thing didn’t exist only a quarter century ago, and today large portions of our societies cannot imagine a life without it, not for a single day. That is real impact. And it reaches far beyond the convenience of our everyday lives by creating an entirely new industry.

My version of the Wall Street story ends here, but it’s not the only Hollywood story that I could use to talk about the impact of new technologies. A less prominent example is Taking Care of Business. Released in 1990, it shows what happens if technology gets in the wrong hands: a busy CEO looses his filofax organiser and the guy finding it seamlessly slips into the CEOs role. That is direct technology impact: today we’d probably call it off-line identity theft. But here again we have a second layer: today, hardly anybody would understand what a filofax is or why that CEO cannot simply recover all his important business data from a cloud server. Something that was omnipresent in 1990 is completely obsolete and forgotten today. It has been replaced by better, faster, more convenient, more powerful technologies.

Which gives us yet another reminder of the impact of new technologies. High time that we are consciously aware of the different layers and speeds: the fast change that you see is maybe not too impressive, but at the same the progress in the background slowly builds the potential to turn your lives upside down without you realising.

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