The Slow March of Technology

For the next few weeks, I'll be reporting from the original Silicon Valley, the neck of land between the Firth of Forth to the east and the Firth of Clyde on the west, marked on one side by Edinburgh and the other by Glasgow. (Why I call it the original Silicon Valley will be the subject of a later post.)  Because the original Industrial Revolution began here, I'm thinking a lot about technical progress and how it happens just now.

No matter how straight the line between one invention or advance and the next appears in retrospect, while it's happening, the progress is not nearly so straight and the path is filled with lots of dead ends and wrong turns.  This article from Cnet, "Tech's Biggest Flops and Gaffes of 2014," outlines what it says are 14 of the worst wrong turns in technology of this year.

If you can overlook the click-bait aspect of the article and the fact that at least half of these flops aren't technical at all, but simply examples of people who should know better behaving badly, there are some interesting examples of how not every good technical idea is going to be successful—at least not over-night successful. No. 13 on the list, the latest "smart watch" flop is a good example. I've been around long enough to remember the advent of the first digital wristwatch, and I've seen the evolution all the way up to the latest "wearable technology" that will rat out your heart rate, blood pressure, caloric intake, exercise level and oh, yes tell time. In this case, maybe it's not that we don't have the technology to build a smart watch. Maybe it's just that nobody really wants to wear a Dick Tracy wrist radio. Maybe sometime in the future, somebody will hit on the right combination of attractiveness, ease of use and necessary functionality to make the wearable computer The Next Big Thing. Or maybe, given that fewer and fewer folks find a need to wear a watch at all (What? Your cell phone doesn't tell time?), it will be another example of an idea that never quite found its place, in spite of being really cool technology.  

I'm ruminating on this because I think the wrong turns and frustrating failures are just as much a part of the automation engineer's job as the spectacular successes—probably more. The wrong turns come with the territory, and sometimes it's only be retracing our steps to see where we went wrong that we figure out how to get it right. So the next time the process doesn't work as well as you wanted or the project has to be scrapped because it's not succeeding the way everyone had hoped, remember that at least you're not the guy who suggested that workers shouldn't ask for raises, but trust that the company will recognize their talent and reward them accordingly.