Jonathan Brun

Old technology is still amazing

There is a lack of appreciation for old technologies that we use everyday. Two examples are mail and checks. Both systems are incredibly easy to use and arguably far easier than their electronic counter parts (just ask someone over 50).

Imagine this crazy idea: you drop an item in a red box, with a handwritten address and a small fee and it will be reliably delivered nearly anywhere in the world. Yes, email is great, but delivering physical objects around the world in a timely, affordable and reliable fashion is even more impressive. On top of that, it has been argued that the penny post was a major contributor to the industrial revolution.

Checks are a nutty idea too. Take some liquid dye (pen), apply it in a pattern (words) on a piece of paper, and boom, you just transferred money. This is far easier than transferring via Paypal, and there are fewer fees attached.

Too quickly we write off the amazing accomplishments of the past to make way for the shiny new toy that the neighbour just got.

As Kevin Kelly pointed out, old technology rarely dies completely, and there is a reason for that: it usually does what it does really well.

Published on August 25, 2010

Innovation under pressure

Innovation is not restricted to laboratories, universities and rich countries. Even the poorest innovate to make the lives easier and more efficient. We should do everything possible to encourage innovation, it is certainly the only way out of poverty. Watching someone pick rice in a paddy field in Asia is almost as painful as the activity itself – the labour is so time-consuming and so little paid, one wonders if there might not be a better solution.

In my view, the most valuable thing on the planet is time. We are running against a countdown and every moment wasted in labour that could be accomplished more efficiently is wasted. If something can be automated it should be automated. Do not confuse that with the statement that “everything should be automated”. Humans should focus on what they do best: artistry, innovation, and creativity. Redundant back-breaking work or putting pegs in a hole on an assembly line is an insult to the human brain. Each one of us carries the most powerful computer in the world, but only a small fraction of our population uses it to its full potential.

The mind is a muscle and if it is not exercised, it goes soft. We should constantly be asking ourselves, “Can this be done better and faster without compromising the quality of the work?”. We should not automate to the detriment of quality, we should automate only when it frees time to invest in other, higher level skills. That being said, humans are programmed to enjoy manual labour, to want to touch the earth and flex our muscles. We are animals, so some things should not be automated to the point of removing all human contact.

It is said (I cannot find the source) that the Luddites, who travelled industrial England destroying machines were not protesting automation of human tasks. They were protesting the reduction of the human into a machine. The former weavers who had to make complex mouvements to create fabric were now performing basic tasks that required no creativity. In a certain sense the Luddites were actually for technology, as long as it was not to the detriment of the human mind and spirit.

Here are a couple good links on innovation in the developing world.


India Innovates

Published on June 5, 2010