Tag Archives: deep-thoughts

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.

On Time

I have to say that this newspaper article from 1992 predicted our future right on the money. I’m an “automation enthusiast”, so I’m all about the time saving device. Just for fun I entered “time saving device” into Google and clicked “I’m Feeling Lucky”. I was directed to this question:

If every year time saving devices are invented (i.e. computers, cell phones, email, etc…) then why do we still need a 40 hour work week?

As I’ve said before, this is another manifestation of the Jevons Paradox. If I wanted to hire someone to paint a building and I had to choose between someone with a bucket of paint and a paintbrush, or a guy with a power sprayer, the latter is undoubtedly more expensive per hour, but cheaper per square foot of wall. He’ll also have the job done faster. That means the demand for the guy with the sprayer is higher. His time saving device gives him more work and less time.

Saving Time is the Myth of Home Automation

In Industrial Automation, we never really talk about saving time. We talk about saving labor and saving money. We talk about increased productivity, efficiency, throughput and uptime. Time is a constant.

Yet at home we talk about time like it’s a variable. As if you could have more of it. What an odd concept when you think about it…

I’ve recently spent some time trying to think of a good time saving home automation device to create, and I’m convinced it’s a pointless activity. Would an automatic pet feeder save me time? Possibly, but you still have to refill it, the parts are likely to wear out, and it has to be cleaned regularly. It takes one of us less than 30 seconds to feed the dog every day. That’s about 3 hours per year. But if you spent 10 minutes a month cleaning it, that’s 2 hours a year right there, and how long are you going to spend fiddling with it when it finally breaks down? Even if there was no extra time, would you spend $100 to save 3 hours? It’s marginal, but doubtful.

Now where that pet feeder really shines is if you have a dog with a special need. It can feed your animal up to 8 times a day, so if your dog was diabetic, then you can start to see that it solves a difficult problem really effectively.

Would a robot vacuum save me time? I think you’ll find that it fails in the same way that the pet feeder fails: you have to clean out the vacuum bucket every time it cycles, and you have to take it apart to clean the brushes regularly. The batteries need replacing, and most reviews I’ve seen indicate that you still need to vacuum once every couple of weeks. It doesn’t save you time. It gives you the ability to vacuum more often.

Look at the three successful categories of home automation: HVAC, lighting, and audio/video. None of those are about saving you time. They’re all about improving the (perceived) quality of life. A new robot that folded your laundry for you wouldn’t be as successful as a closet that color co-ordinates your outfits for you. Everyone can fold laundry but not everyone can pick an outfit. There’s a market for the latter.

On Helping

If I want something from you, I’ll probably tell you what you want to hear.

If I want to help you, I’ll probably tell you something you don’t want to hear.

Isn’t it interesting that we prefer to be around people who want something from us, rather than people who want to help us?