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cringely on weblogs


[via Dave] The most recent Cringely article is on the topic of weblogs, and he makes a number of interesting points. The first is that

It takes society 30 years, more or less, to absorb a new information technology into daily life. It took about that long to turn movable type into books in the 15th century. Telephones were invented in the 1870s, but did not change our lives until the 1900s. Motion pictures were born in the 1890s, but became an important industry in the 1920s. Television, invented in the mid-1920s, took until the mid-1950s to bind us to our sofas. The PC and the Internet are both today about 30 years old, which means we are finally figuring what they are about.
While his numbers match, I have to say that I find the logic faulty. I don't think that it takes 30 years for people to "figure out" what something is good for (although the lag between early adopters and the public-at-large is definitely there), I think that the 30 years he points to is more a measure of the economic and cultural evolution of a particular technology and its acceptance rather than whether people "figure out" what something is good for or not. Also, Cringely is measuring using a US-centric view, when you go outside it becomes easier to see that sometimes a technology (or technology/science mix) evolves through different timescales. Take, for example, Norman Borlaug's work on "distilling" and then "exporting" dwarf wheat, which provided one of the keys to allow densely populated countries such as India to (quite literally) feed themselves. If you start counting with Mendel's work in the late 19th century to Watson & Crick's work on DNA, it becomes difficult to find 30 years that fit neatly in that timeline. Even for more "technological" achievements, such as air travel, it's difficult to find the 30 years anywhere. Generation and use of electricity is the same thing. And even for Cringely's examples, like TV, we could say that even though they became more used in the 50s in the US, it wasn't until the 60s, and Kennedy's assasination, that television's power was really apparent. On the other hand, it didn't take anyone 30 years to figure out that digital music had quite a number of advantages, as anyone within reach of a computer can attest.

While I do argue against his calendar-based absolutism and my contention that it's economic and curltural forces, rather than "figuring out" what something is or does, I think he has a point: technologies, or anything that affects our cultural behavior for that matter, do have an adoption curve measured in years and sometimes decades.

However, in using the "figuring out" imagery, he also implies that the technology necessarily is creating something new, and that, I think, is wrong. In many cases a technology is simply facilitating a process that already existed, and it's only after a while (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly) that the facilitation of previous behavior leads to entirely new processes.

And, once in a while, in facilitating something that previously existed, a technology will simply bring that to the fore, help us rediscover something that might have been lost or pushed aside in the evolution of things.

That, I believe, is the case with weblogs.

For "proof" I refer you to another segment of Cringely's article:

Some people think this column is a web log, but it isn't. For one thing, it predates web logs and I'm hoping will post-date them, too. Google News classifies what I am doing here as a web log even though I predate Google, itself, by more than a decade and don't see my work that way at all. I use too darned many words to be a web log, for one thing, and too darned few links. If I write anything really newsworthy, which I like to think that I do from time to time, the only way Google News will show it is if one of their 4500 REAL news sites mentions me. Otherwise, I don't exist, or more properly I exist only in a blogosphere that I, in turn, refuse to acknowledge. I'm odd that way.
His oddity notwhistanding, the fact that he has been doing whatever he was doing before weblogs came along doesn't mean he's not weblogging, or doing something that shares qualities with weblogging. As I said in my intro to weblogs, some people are "natural-born bloggers". Cringely's style of writing always had a foot on the world of weblogging: personal, opinionated, timely but not necessarily timeless. Even his book, Accidental Empires, which is excellent and I've read more than once, tilts towards qualities we generally associate with weblogging--not that weblogs "invented them", it's just that weblogs share some qualities with certain styles of (dare I say it?) journalism, or, more generally, writing.

But most of all, I'd point to the fact that his column includes a picture of his newborn baby.

Now, where have we seen that before? :)

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on June 11 2004 at 8:41 PM

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