The Case for Technical Challenge

from Hunter Leath

Feb. 9, 2013, 1:48 p.m.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the time that we live in. The twenty-first century is a magical place.

  • The whole breadth of human knowledge is available to us at the touch of a button.
  • We can see where our friends are without having to be with them.
  • We can run calculations on our smartphones faster than the computers that NASA sent with the astronauts to the moon in 1969.

However, there seems to be a sense of stagnation around us. People used to be excited about the nearly constant breakthroughs in science and technology that defined the twentieth century. Today, true discovery is rare as most exciting news is met with the reasons why it won't work.

In fact, even the event that defined technological innovation last year (excluding this piece of actual achievement that was incredibly exciting), the space jump, didn't actually break some records originally awarded in 1960.

Now, is this necessarily relevant to what I am going to say? Not particularly, but I felt it would make a good lead in to the problem at hand. Plus, there might be someone else more suited for talking about why we should really invest in NASA.

Technical Challenge is No Longer a Focus.

No, what I am interested in is computers. Computers, start-up cultures, and bubbles. If you are working in technology today, it is very easy to get the opinion that everything that was worth creating has already been done. I am going to get flak from people who say that there is always possibility for improvement, and I totally agree with you. The problem lies in the word improvement, though. Of course the world can constantly be improved. If it couldn't, we wouldn't have research and development at all. Even though we can all do our part to improve the systemic process that we live in, why do so few people chose to change the underlying problem?

For one, there isn't money in it. People are flocking to Silicon Valley to create start-ups because of the huge successes of companies around that area. However, are they really creating new technology? No, start-ups are generally created to solve a very specific problem and make a profit off of it. They tend to avoid problems that are so large that money can't be involved.

In the context of computers, this means the low-level stuff. We still use technology that was originally created in the early 1970s. Why? Now, it would be silly to advocate changing everything for the sake of change itself. Needless to say, we have learned that newer things are not, in fact, always better. Rather, we should at least consider looking at the world around us in a different light. Instead of just accepting systemic failures and drawbacks, we should consider examining why these failures exist. We could even entertain the thought of possibly (gasp) fixing these problems in the world.

Andrew Brewer made an excellent remark regarding email:

I think, as with a lot of "accepted" products and materials in the world, most people commonly don't think about what they hate about something like this. Instead they just accept it for how it is.

Email is the problem that I have currently taken up attempting to fix with a group of other students here at the University of Virginia. Our product, airdispat.ch, aspires to fix some of the underlying problems with the email system. We have an inkling that the use cases may have changed in the past 40 years.

Now, what kind of feedback were we met with when we expressed interest in starting this project?

  • You can't just remake something that universal.
  • Nobody will adopt it.
  • You cannot make money.
  • You are fixing a problem that doesn't exist. If you just worked around email, it wouldn't be a hassle.

This is the kind of thinking I would encourage everyone to avoid. You shouldn't limit yourself to working within the confines of technologies that have a universal adoption. While I agree that it does seem risky and silly to change something so fundamental, how else do we really progress as a society? Remember, we have the technology to create self-driving cars next month, if everyone was forced to buy one.

This week, I encourage you to go out and look at the technology that you take for granted. The technology that you could not live without. The technology that is fundamental. Then, think about living without it. What would be different? What would be the same? Finally, think about recreating it. Find a way to make it better. That's how you find revolutionary change.


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