Home' Technology Review : January February 2010 Contents FROM THE EDITOR
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW JANUARY/FEBRUARY
FROM THE EDITOR
When a technology first appears in the world, it is not under-
stood: no one knows what to do with it.
In a review of the Biomark 96.96 Dynamic Array, a microflu-
idic chip made by Fluidigm, a startup in South San Francisco (see
"Shoveling Water," p. 70), David Rotman, Technology Review's editor,
asks why such chips are not more widely used. The Fluidigm chip,
which (considered purely as an artifact) is a very beautiful thing,
"represents a decade of successive inventions," Rotman writes,
and such chips, in general, are "a fundamental breakthrough in
how researchers can interact with the biological world." Micro-
fluidic chips "allow biologists and chemists to manipulate tiny
amounts of fluid in a precise and highly automated way." And
yet these chips, which bear some resemblance to an electronic
microprocessor, "with valves replacing transistors and channels
replacing wires," will not live up to the comparison to micro-
electronics until they have made the transition "from promising
laboratory tool to widely used commercial technology." Possible
applications include a variety of diagnostic uses, but the technol-
ogy still lacks what the software industry calls the "killer app."
Rotman reviews the chip and Brian Arthur's book The Nature
of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, and like many con-
tributors to our Reviews section, he uses the occasion to make
a broader point about technology. Arthur, a former professor of
economics and population studies at Stanford, wishes to pro-
pose a grand theory of technology, akin to the one for science
that Thomas Kuhn set out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
What interests Rotman is Arthur's explanation of why truly new
technologies, like microfluidic chips, are so slow to be adopted.
Arthur makes a distinction between bodies of technology, or
"domains," such as electronics, photonics, and microfluidics, and
their individual technologies. Domains emerge "piece by piece."
Technologies within domains may be adopted quickly, but only
after those domains have been encountered first by users who
are bewildered. What are these technologies? How are they used?
What do they allow people to do that could not be done before, or
at least not as e ciently? Always, new domains betray "missing
pieces" that technologists must develop before useful applica-
tions can be successfully commercialized. All this, says Arthur,
"normally takes decades. It is a very, very slow process."
Arthur's observation is consistent with a general principle
sometimes called "Cringely's Law," after the pundit Robert X.
Cringely, who proposed it. Cringely's Law states that short-term
adoption of new technologies never occurs as quickly as we
expect, but their long-term impact is far greater than we realize.
One market-oriented way of thinking about the protracted
adoption of new technologies is to understand that among the
"missing pieces" of new domains are the modes of business that
will sustain the constituent technologies. That is to say: the real
economic value of new technologies is almost always imperfectly
understood because the technologies' markets do not yet exist.
At Red Herring, a magazine I edited during the dot-com boom,
we were so conscious of this phenomenon we had a name for its
e ect: "the Rule of the Second-Mover Advantage." (I last wrote
about it in "The Rules of Innovation," May 2005, and at
technologyreview.com.) We meant that the first attempt to
commercialize a technology almost never succeeds, but another
organization will succeed where the original innovator failed.
IBM, for example, first commercialized the personal computer,
but Microsoft controlled the "platform" for its software and
therefore benefited most. The best recent example, however, is in
search. There were many search engines before Google---some of
them, like AltaVista, possessing technology the equal of
PageRank, Google's algorithm for ranking the popularity of Web
pages. But Google was first to see that the monetary value of
search was in keyword advertising; that "missing bit" created the
link economy and overturned media (see Briefing, p. 59).
What will be the markets for microfluidics? Rotman o ers a
few guesses. Drug companies might use microfluidics to show
how genes are expressed in cells: "In one experiment, cancer
researchers are using one of Fluidigm's chips to analyze pros-
tate tumor cells, seeking patterns that would help them select the
drugs that will most e ectively combat the tumor." Microfluidics
could also make possible cheap, portable diagnostic devices for
the poor and developing world, where treatable diseases often go
undiagnosed (see "TR 10: Paper Diagnostics," March/April 2009).
The modes of business that sustain a new technology influ-
ence its further development. Norbert Wiener, the founder of
cybernetics, showed that this influence is self-amplifying and,
eventually, destabilizing. To commercialize a technology is to sow
the seeds of its dissolution. IBM's mainframes were succeeded
by Microsoft's software, which has been succeeded by Google's
keywords, which will be succeeded by something else. Nothing
lasts forever, or even for very long. But write and tell me what you
think at email@example.com.
On the Evolution of Technology
NEW TECHNOLOGIES ARE MISSING MANY THINGS,
BUT ESPECIALLY THEIR MARKETS.
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