Edison Also Asked: “When Will People Get It?”

First published November 15, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Over the past few weeks, my general theme has been “why don’t more people get it?” Why don’t agencies get search. Why don’t CEOs get search? Why don’t more search portals get that it’s the user that determines your success? Why don’t more people get that the world is changing, quickly? What’s with us, anyway?

Well, this week, I gained a little insight; thanks to a paper by Paul David called “The Dynamo and the Computer.” Maybe we just need some time. It’s not the first time this happened. Let me tell you the story of the light bulb.

Lighting Up the Industrial Age

Edison introduced the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879. The first generating stations in New York and London started their dynamos spinning in 1881. Profound changes were to follow. Productivity was to grow by leaps and bounds.

Factories in the 1800’s were dark, noisy and not particularly pleasant places to spend a day.  At the center sat the steam engine: a huge, hungry and finicky behemoth, connected by an extended system of belts to the operating machinery of the factory. Even the early electrical engines were smaller, cleaner and much more efficient. Electric lighting made 24 hour shifts more practical. The benefits were obvious. Electricity was the ultimate “no-brainer.”

Still in the Dark

But by 1899, almost two decades after the introduction of the light bulb, only 3% of homes were “wired.” And the much-predicted impact on the North American industrial engine would have to wait until the 1920s to take hold. It took a half century for electricity to make much of a difference in America.

You see, technology tends to move fast, but people move slowly. It’s because transition tends to be dependent on many factors. It’s not like the flicking of (quite literally, in this case) a light switch. It’s more like waiting for a long series of dominos to fall into place, each drop contingent on the previous one.

In the case of electricity, significant money had been invested in steam power. You don’t just rip it all out and start over again, no matter how compelling the advantages might be. So factory owners waited for things to break down, and then retrofitted with new electric engines. But even this retrofitting had to wait for the supply of electrical engineers to catch up. In 1899, not many people knew how to design an electrical delivery system. The skill gap had to be eliminated. And this lack of expertise also showed up in less direct ways. America also had to wait for a new generation of factory architects to appear, who could design factories built to be powered by electricity. For every obvious benefit of electrification, there was a long series of factors that had to fall into place first. That’s why it took five decades to turn on the light.

History Repeating Itself

This technology adoption curve has been repeated over and over. The replacement of horsepower with steam power. And more recently, the information technology revolution. We can get as frustrated as we want with the snail’s pace reluctance of many to grasp the realities of the new world, but the fact is, we’re just being human.

Technology adoption usually follows a predictable path: introduction of technology, commercialization of technology, layering the technology onto what preceded it, and finally, throwing out the old completely and building from the ground up to embrace the technology. Each step depends on the step before it. And in every case, legacy investment slows the speed at which we move from one to the other.

If we look at the adoption of Internet technology and compare it to previous technology adoption curves, we’re just starting up the beginning of the long and steep part of the “S” curve. There’s no doubt we’ll get there, but it will take time.

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