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The Invisible Hand: Replication

What makes the masses adopt a new technology? I don’t think it’s because it saves them time.

When I was at StackOverflow Dev Days last year, Joel Spolsky gave a keynote that touched on the topics of why people use technology. Specifically he talked about why the masses use it. I think as geeks we sometimes can’t see how “normal people” see technology. Back in the 90’s I couldn’t understand why anyone would buy a Mac over a PC. As a 30-something father with different priorities, I’m starting to “get it”.

Joel referred to a book by Richard Dawkins called The Selfish Gene. It says that genes aren’t the method by which we reproduce, but rather: we are the method by which genes reproduce. They created us because it’s a workable method to make more copies of themselves.

Joel asks us to imagine a 20 year old college student sitting in her dorm room, trying to install Firefox. Why is she installing Firefox? So that she can use Facebook. Why does she want to use Facebook? So she can communicate with her friends and know where they’re going to be, possibly when they’ll be going to the bar. And why does she want to go to the bar? Most likely there’s a strong primal urge to “hook up” with someone.

People buy iPhones for the sexiness. Business people want a BlackBerry for business, but why are they in business? Why do business people want to be successful?

It doesn’t really matter how you try to spin this. Once you get outside the early adopters of technology who are doing it because they’re “not normal”, the “normal” people use technology for much more fundamental reasons. The most powerful force that drives everything, including technology, is replication, and thus reproduction. Do you want proof?

Did you notice how replication was its own reward? Makes sense. Things that just replicate themselves will make more things that replicate themselves. Things that don’t replicate themselves will get eaten by those that do.

Now ask yourself, why hasn’t home automation taken off? Lights? Vacuums? They’re gadgets for a geeky minority. They really don’t help with the fundamental drive of the home, which is family. How does home automation help you raise better kids? How does it help you make them smarter, better, more successful? Does this home automation system appeal to the vast majority of “normal” people? I don’t think so. (I’ll give it some geek cred, though.)

If we answered those questions, we’d know how to make home automation for the masses.

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