Archives For History

Remember tech in 1991?

Jerry —  August 24, 2016 — Leave a comment

Can you scroll your brain back before wifi, smartphones and the App Store? Before the Intertubes, the Web, Google and Google Docs, back to a world of faxes, LANs, pagers, PBXes and early (too early) pen computers?

This talk will help you. In it, in 1991, I went to Lotus Development’s HQ in Cambridge to explain a research service I was just launching called Continuous Information Environments (CIE). Lotus (the makers of 1-2-3, then Lotus Notes) was already a client of our other services including the one I launched a few years prior called Intelligent Document Management (IDM), which was sparked into being by electronic imaging technology but avoided that topic like the plague because scanned documents stored on optical media were so, well… stupid. Oh, the company that hosted all of this research was New Science Associates (hi guys!), an unfriendly spinout from Gartner Group that was later acquired by Gartner.

There are many things to note in this talk aside from my shiny forehead, double-breasted suit and firmly gripped styrofoam coffee. For example, I’m using acetates to present on an overhead projector. Acetates. That blew my mind on watching this talk again. And I don’t mention the Internet until an hour and 24 minutes in, during the Q&A. It was still a locked-away military research network to most of us.

The first three and a half minutes of this talk I’m explaining New Science’s retainer research model, so jump past that if you want to get to the tech. I did get to boast that we were using Lotus Notes to distribute our research. We (New Science) were early with electronic publishing, alongside Patty Seybold’s Seybold Group. (When I joined Esther in 1992 I got to learn to use XyWrite and AMIX, the American Information eXchange, a horribly designed online publishing platform. Two steps backward.)

A few more observations with the benefit of hindsight. At the time:

  • I was a big fan of pen computers, but a pen-less touch interface, the kind that is ubiquitous now, was not in my frame of reference.
  • Most of my examples cited male bosses and colleagues. I learned some gender neutrality later.
  • I laughed at thinking that a small device might have global positioning capabilities, an inexpensive commonplace now.
  • Momenta, my favorite pen-computing startup of the moment, hadn’t blown up on the launch pad yet. (It dosn’t even merit a Wikipedia page; sniff!)
  • At Momenta’s launch event, I sat next to Esther and gave her the CIE white paper. Then we swapped publications. Then (months later) she asked me to join her. I almost said no (thanks for the advice, Dan Miller!).
  • So many company names have vanished into the memory hole!
  • Faxes. Remember faxing?
  • Our focus at New Science was helping corporations use technology wisely, hence so many examples grounded in call centers, insurance claims adjustment, etc. Our clients ran Advanced Technology Groups — back when that was still a thing.
  • I forgot to bring a box of paper copies of our research reports with me. How 1990s!
  • I thought pen computers would be everywhere in five years, so around 1996. The iPhone launched in 2006, with no pen. Sometimes advances take a while to gestate and catch on.

Enjoy some time-travel:

A footnote: When I launched the Intelligent Document Management service for New Science in 1990, I drew this diagram to explain it:

IDM Scope Diagram

Prior to that moment, all the service brochures in our industry (retainer tech market research) were basically bullet points. Gartner, IDC, Forrester, BIS Cap, etc. From that moment forward, they went visual. Everyone needed a conceptual diagram.

And the diagram I use in the talk above is this one, for CIE:

CIE Scope Diagram

Last word: if you squint while looking at both diagrams (and maybe sip some mezcal while doing so), you can see the outlines of the tech world we inhabit today.

From 1992 to 1998, I wrote about the future of technology for Esther Dyson in her monthly newsletter, Release 1.0. We also ran an annual conference, the PC Forum, which back in that day was one of the top two conferences that all startups wanted to debut at.

My favorite panel at PC Forum was this one about online community, titled (I think) Virtual People and Places. Two of the panelists, Bob Kavner and Sherry Turkle, had just been onstage (you can see them in this video). Then three more folks joined us — Adam Curry, Carol Peters and Stewart Brand — and we had at it. In a great way. Like this.

Sometimes the ways that societies arrange themselves look strange from the outside, or from the future, but yield great results in their time.

The pre-modern British aristocracy is a great case in point. They threw lavish parties for one another at expensive “county seats” dotted around the county. They died in duels, inherited titles and didn’t train their offspring in any useful skills. Yet this arrangement gave the world Rule, Britannia for almost 300 years.

The Institutional Revolution, by UCLA historian Doug Allen, describes how this set of norms and institutions worked. Along the way, Allen creates the memorable term “hostage capital,” which describes how the aristocrats were “all in” on their lifestyle: If they were cut off by the court, they would have little or nothing to survive on. No assets, no reputation, no useful skills. Everything depended on succeeding with their responsibilities.

In this 5minU (Five Minute University), I share what I learned from his book, particularly how it relates to creating trust at a distance. For example, how could Queen Elizabeth be pretty damned sure that Sir Francis Drake was acting in the Crown’s best interests and not his own, while he was on the other side of the globe?

Here’s the book, in context, in my Brain.

Btw, if we all created 5minUs, our reading lists would all get shorter — and we’d get to know one another better. Please publish yours and tag them #5minU.

How we used to live together

Jerry —  August 8, 2013 — 5 Comments

We are modern. We see the world through modern eyes, in a modern context. It’s very hard to unlearn that perspective, or even to understand what it means.

From the modernist point of view, a lot of behaviors and institutions from times gone by make no sense at all. If you want to be entertained learning why the strange customs of the British pre-modern aristocracy were actually well suited to their times and contributed directly to a couple hundred years of Rule Britannia, read The Institutional Revolution: Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World, by Doug Allen.

That would be entertaining, but not as useful as a reading of The Great Transformation, written by Karl Polanyi in 1944. In the video below, I distill what I got from the book. I’ll offer some comments after it.

The three ways we stayed alive before: householding, reciprocity and redistribution. The three fictitious commodities brought by the industrial revolution: land, labor and money. Poverty, new in 1650; unemployment, new in 1750. The mind boggles.

I’m going to keep creating 5minUs of books that have influenced me, and I encourage you to, as well. Together we might be able to read our way through huge stacks of important works. Contradictions and debate welcome. That’s the point, too.