The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) age of the last thirty years has been hailed as changing the human condition and our course through history. Its impact has been compared to that of the Industrial Revolution, from which we made a transition into a post-industrial, information-based society.
When user experience professionals think about how humans have interacted with technology throughout history, however, we may conclude that changes caused by information technology (including the Internet) in the daily experiences of users have been far less significant than changes brought about by numerous innovations that blossomed and persisted throughout the 200 years before the information age.
Why do we tend to overestimate recent technological change? There are two key factors: first is a memory-accessibility bias that leads us to underestimate the impact of past technological changes which we did not experience. Second, we fail to realize the algorithmic nature of change. We focus on the cumulative aspect of innovation, distorting the perceived effect of an invention with the cumulative effect of previous technologies on which it’s built, rather than on the before-and-after differences.
Let’s go back in time and glance at some technological innovations of the late 18th century. The history of technology reveals how past generations of users experienced extreme change through a stream of innovations unmatched in the last quarter century. Furthermore, those historical, experience-transforming innovations coexisted with legacy technologies which they leveraged and augmented.
Almost continuously between the Persian Empire (ca. 600 B.C.) and Claude Chappe’s optical telegraph system in 1791, messenger runners and horseback riders were the sole means of long distance communication. At its best, this postal system relied on an official relay (in the Greek, Roman, and Chinese empires). At its worst, the system relied on occasional travelers, such as pilgrims who carried messages between monasteries during the Middle Ages.
The Emperor Maximilian’s postmaster Franz von Taxis founded the first formal postal system in 1489. It was open to the general public and provided regular postal service throughout most of Europe. The service could deliver a message from Brussels to Paris in forty-eight hours, and from Paris to Toledo, Spain in twelve days. Descendants from the Taxis family ran the service until 1867. It wasn’t until the 1830s that European postal systems could return to the communication speeds comparable to the ancient systems employed by Persians and Romans.
The creation of post offices, an organizational rather than technical innovation, had multiple effects on communication. Cheap postage was introduced in the mid-19th century. The post office and the prepaid stamp made it possible for the general public to communicate over long distances for the first time. Standardized postal rates in 1839 and, soon after, the adhesive stamp, changed how thousands of regular people communicated. Email has become a regular means of communication in our work and personal lives, but its significance does not compare to the impact of postal mail service to Europeans in the Middle Ages.
In 1791, Chappe’s new telegraphic device shortened distances and increased communications dramatically. It was made of wood, iron, rope, and stone—materials available to Iron Age civilizations more than 2,000 years before. What made it succeed was not its hardware, but its software. Chappe’s optical telegraph consisted of a pair of arms whose ninety-eight positions represented numbers, which in turn corresponded to words or phrases in a code book. A single optical line could handle four to six telegrams. To us this seems painfully slow, but compared to its predecessors, the progress was dramatic. A message that would have taken three days from Paris to Toulon on horseback, or over a week by stagecoach, now took minutes to be transmitted. This represented a dramatic change relative to the alternatives available at the time, even though those figures are unimpressive to us in absolute terms.
Railways increased the speed of mail even more than mail coaches had fifty years earlier, starting a globalization trend that has continued during the information age. Although digital and communication technologies in the late 1990s accelerated globalization, the scale of the change is not comparable to the impact of railroads on the lives of Europeans in the 1840s. Travel from Berlin to Magdeburg, Germany took fifteen hours rather than two and a half days. Forty-eight million passengers were using the railways in 1845. Most of them had not experienced anything like it even twenty years earlier.
Not all changes were positive. Travel between cities on railroads was surprisingly dangerous. In 1890, railroad-related accidents caused 10,000 deaths. More than 300 grade-crossing deaths were counted in Chicago in one year. Pollution and excruciating noise became standard as railroads stumped through city centers. They also brought danger to those who worked on the trains; one in every 300 railroad workers died of a job-related accident.
As in many other cases, railroad and a new electric telegraph juxtaposed their effects in a symbiotic relationship. Between 1840 and 1850 the electric telegraph became one of the most significant technologies in history, reducing the elapsed time per word transmitted by a factor of 3,000 (from ten days to five minutes for a one-page message between New York and Chicago), and the cost by a factor of 100. Telegraph cables were planted parallel to railroad tracks.
The convergence of the postal system with other innovations made mail communications more sophisticated and diversified. Postcards started to appear in Western Europe and the USA around 1870 and became very popular. Once postal service and paper became affordable, they cascaded into commerce. Montgomery Ward & Co. distributed its first catalog in 1872. Around 1879, pulp-making enhanced the quality of paper, making its production more efficient and affordable, and rushing the populace into the age of mass paper consumption. The improved paper fueled mail order business in the 1890s.
Also very significant for commerce was the appearance of parcel deliveries, which begin in 1883 in Britain and in the U.S. a few years later. Internet commerce can be considered an extension of this form of remote shopping, with which it coexists today (in another example of technological symbiosis, as internet commerce leverages a long-established shipping infrastructure).
The Old, the Small, and the Obvious
We take radio for granted, but the excitement about today’s internet does not even begin to measure up to the enthusiastic reception of the first live radio broadcasts. Radio became pervasive with the appearance of the transistor and the long-life battery (another example of technological juxtaposition), making it a universal experience in the later half of the 20th century. Radio became the main, often sole means of mass communication, enabling politicians to leverage its efficiency, from U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression to France’s Charles De Gaulle during the revolt of military commanders in 1961.
Radio brought news, music, and literature to masses who had never experienced them before. The first serious competition to newspapers was not the Internet, but radio in the 1930s, when advertising agencies shifted their investment from print media to radio as it became the most trusted and consumed medium. The first electronic contact with the outside world achieved by telegraph and the radio (later by television) constituted a new experience. By contrast, our web experiences have merely increased the speed, convenience, and richness of existing activities.
Running water, indoor plumbing, and urban sanitation developed gradually from the 1880s to 1913. They improved the quality of urban life on a scale very few innovations can claim. They didn’t involve major scientific breakthroughs, but they revived, improved, and spread an engineering infrastructure dating from ancient Mesopotamia and Rome. The technologies behind them were as inconspicuous as they were divergent. Alexander Cummings’ flush toilet design in 1775 and Joseph Bazalgette’s concept of an underground sewer system using massive city-wide water supplies around 1885 are primary factors in urban sanitation, both remaining fundamentally unchanged except for improvements like the float-and-valve system.
The 19th century relieved farmers from the regular chore of lugging kettles of water heated in outdoor fires. A housewife in the 1890s collecting buffalo chips as heating fuel in winter on the Kansas plains would no doubt feel more affected by 20th century central heating than would a 1950s typewriter-bound office worker using Facebook. These are examples of technologies with extraordinary impact but without extraordinary invention, whose conspicuity often makes them invisible to those exalting the impact of information technology.
Innovation vs. Usage: The Bias of the New
The new doesn’t always replace the old. MP3 players double as radio tuners. Diverse, seemingly unrelated technological innovations like postage stamps, railways, pulp making, parcel delivery, or half-tone printing have intertwined and augmented each other, evolving our experiences over relatively short periods of time.
Our emphasis on first design often neglects the significance of old technologies that continue to be in use. Horses coexisted with tanks in battlefields up to the latest World War. The bicycle’s design has remained virtually unchanged from its standard two-wheel design in the 1880s. In fact, bicycle production peaked in the world in the 1970s, mostly through growth in the poor cities of China, India, and Taiwan.
Rickshaws share modern roads with automobiles. The hand rickshaw, devised in Japan in the 1870s, spread throughout southern and southeast Asia in the 1920s and 1930s. The cycle rickshaw only came to outnumber the hand-pulled in 1935, and then continued to expand in the 1960s and 70s despite governmental efforts to phase them out by restricting licenses. Now cycle rickshaws are appearing in large western cities.
Horses, bicycles, and rickshaws exemplify the longevity of old technologies whose design has remains virtually unchanged but whose impact has expanded over the decades and centuries. Their longevity is due to the sheer demographic expansion of their user base, based on utility-cost profiles unmatched by competing alternatives, including learning curves that flatten permanently soon after a small upfront effort.
The technology with the most recent and significant before-and-after effect is not the most inventive in its engineering. The mobile phone today brings real changes to the experience of millions around the world. Like other examples of high impact, it combines existing technologies.
In spite of the enhanced productivity brought about by our modern desktop and instant message tools, teams of knowledge workers in hundreds of IT companies still struggle in their remote meetings with mute buttons, microphones, echoes, interferences, and the occasional screeching of telephony connections. IT infrastructures have not yet become reliable enough to run undetected, and increased sophistication often results in an increasingly complex user experience.
We tend to overestimate the significance of technological progress because of a natural tendency to assess change within the boundaries of our own time. We could characterize this tendency as a generational variation of the Kahneman and Tversky’s availability bias, which magnifies the probabilities of memorable events, aggrandizing the significance of those experiences available to us. We perceive our grandparents as anchors from whom we depart, and not as witnesses to their own transformation.
Changes through time should be sized in terms of the proportional difference between what occurred before and after. Change, like economic growth, is algorithmic and is determined not by the cumulative effect of technological progress, but by the increment relative to its previous measured point—in the same way that a company does not measure year-to-year growth by absolute revenue figures.
In addition to many of the most spectacular technologies of the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, like electricity, telephony, combustion engines, cinematography, automobiles, or television, there are many instances of change brought about by smaller technologies that persisted by improving gradually over time, acting in combination with parallel technologies.
A close look at the history of technology use gives new perspectives to the affect of the new and the old on today’s users. The purpose is not to trivialize the contributions of our digital era, but to prepare ourselves for the burst of true, extreme change that history teaches us is possible. Quoting the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, “History does not make us smarter next time, but wiser forever.”