Dries Buytaert and innovation: it’s about “what you’re allowed to believe” [graph]

I found this interesting graph from Dries Buytaert’s keynote speech at the recent DrupalConf. It shows clearly how Buytaert sees innovation: as a race against obsolescence – a race against yourself.

That graph reminded me immediately of an anecdote in ‘What Technology Wants’ by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly.

In 1953, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research plotted the history of the fastest air technology.The Air Force had a feeling that the pace of innovation was increasing, and it wanted to get a feel for where things were going.

So it plotted the fastest speeds clocked by aircraft over time. The graph started with the Wright brothers achieving 6.8 kilometers per hour in 1903 and jumping to 60 km/h barely two years later. In 1947, a  Lockheed Shoot Star reached 1000 km/h. At the time the report was ordered by the Air Force, the record speed stood at 1 215 kilometers per hour.

Where was this all going?

Well, said the curve:  it was going to space – in the next four years. Delivering a payload into orbit would become possible immediately after that. Satellites: at the same time. A lunar landing: a little bit later.

It’s important to note, says Kelly, that at the time of the report none of that technology existed. The Air Force had just given itself permission to dream big (and fast).

Kelly shows that this kind of graph is typically how innovation looks. Take the graph that we all know called Moore’s law (“computing chips will shrink by half in size and cost every 18 to 24 months”). The graph for Moore’s law looks like this:

Except of course, it doesn’t. What you’re seeing is a straight line, but that’s not what’s happening. Every so often, the line actually stops and another line starts. The vacuum tube is replaced by a transistor. That , in turn, is replaced by integrated circuits. This is how Ray Kurzweil plotted Moore’s law:

This is the generic look of innovation: a collection of S-shaped curves. It looks like people are capable of spurring themselves toward more innovation when we feel that our current tech is tailing off:

According to Kelly, looking at these curves we can “listen to technology speak”. He also thinks that this graph has less to do with the nature of technology than with basic human psychology. He quotes Carver Mead, a friend of Moore’s and an expert in transistors, who puts it this way:

“Moore’s law is not a law of physics. It’s about people’s belief systems. And when people believe in something, they’ll put energy behind it to make it come to pass. It’s about a vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe.”

Should we believe more in technology and innovation in these times of crisis?  Let me know in the comments.

[via Tuag.ca] [photo: Muir Ceardach, Flickr, graphs: "What technology wants," Kevin Kelly]

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Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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