By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Creative inspiration transforms new tech beyond original intentions

The inventors of radio technology believed its main use would be for ship-to-shore communications. They didn't foresee the generation of teenage ham radio operators — including David Sarnoff, who later founded RCA, which eventually became NBC — who found new uses for it. Nor did they anticipate its rise in the 1920s as a news and entertainment medium.

Similarly, when the telephone was first invented, it was thought of as a more efficient way to transfer Morse code telegraph signals.

Today, we see how political activists have used Facebook and Twitter to spread word about protests and demonstrations.

That should remind us of a really important fact about new technologies: People often end up using the technologies in ways their inventors never imagined. And those unimagined applications of a technology often turn out to be far more important than the uses initially imagined by the technology's inventors.

I was reminded of this by a fascinating article in the Jan. 29 issue of The Economist of London — the best magazine in the world, by the way — titled "Not Just Talk," about innovative ways that cell phone technology is being used in developing countries. Many of these countries have bypassed fixed-line telephony altogether and gone directly from no phone service to cell phone service. In developing countries, there are now about 70 cell phones per 100 people!

But the point of the article is to note that cell phones are increasingly being used for applications that do not involve having a conversation over the phone. The cell phone is in effect the only computer that many of these people in poor countries have. People use mobile phone voice services to check on market prices for the commodities they sold, directing people to bring their produce to markets where the prices are best. But the article in the Economist discusses many cell phone applications in developing countries that the inventors of cell phone technology certainly never imagined — such as an identification number on a drug package that can be typed into the phone and linked to a database to determine whether the pharmaceutical is real or fake, cash transfers using text messaging that cuts out expensive middlemen, etc. Some experts are referring to these apps as ushering in Development 2.0.

This has lessons for government. In my view, the strongest argument for making more government data available online is not the standard transparency argument but the view that once the information is available, people outside government can come up with ways to use it that government would never have thought of itself. I also believe that we don't do nearly enough inside government to encourage users to come up with new ways to use IT applications that the government develops for its own use. Too often, we allow users simply to be passive vessels for our IT applications rather than active formulators of new uses for them that their initial developers never conceived.

Posted on Feb 04, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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