Continuing each Monday another section from my 2001 book Hoover’s Vision. See last Friday’s post to find out how to get a PDF of the entire book.
One of the biggest risks in thinking about the past and the future is that we become “chronocentric” – that is, obsessed with our own era, considering it the most important or most dynamic time ever. This is probably a natural function of our human ego, and I am sure that generations before us felt the same way. But our understanding of our times will be clearer if we do not fall victim to this trap.
Chronocentricity is especially common in the business world. We see the explosive overnight growth of technology companies—Microsoft, Dell, AOL, Cisco and others—and we think, “How 90s.” But computer networking is only the latest wave of explosive technological innovation to spawn a host of new enterprises. In their day, technologies like steam power, electricity, the railroads, the automobile, the airplane, and the transistor led to similar economic revolutions. When Charles Kettering started DELCO in the early twentieth century, he went from zero employees to 1,200 in eighteen months. Can Cisco match that kind of growth rate?
Look at the last ten to twenty years. It is often said that this is the time of greatest change in our history. The 1980-2000 period saw the birth and rapid spread of the personal computer, the video cassette recorder, the compact disk, cable TV, and of course the Internet. Admittedly these are great innovations. But look at the data in the next table (which you could easily plot as a bunch of S-curves) and think for a moment what it was like to live in the 1920s. In only ten years, America crossed the magic 50% participation line in cars, electric lighting, and indoor plumbing. Just one year later (1931), radio crossed the same line.
Percent Penetration of US Households by Selected Technologies
Watching history and studying trends depends on thinking clearly and objectively about where we stand today, how it compares with where we (or our grandparents) stood yesterday, and how it compares with how we (and our descendants) will stand in the future.