Of flying cars and tweets

In a provocative piece, Peter Thiel wrote:

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

This framed a discussion at the NBER Summer Institute on Monday as to whether we are about to run out of ideas. (By the way, apparently only Bob Gordon thinks we are or, perhaps like Tyler Cowen, the ideas won’t make it into productivity.) It is the sort of statement whose implication is supposed to be obvious but I’d like to suggest here that it really is not.

chittybang01Let’s start with flying cars. We should question the premise of whether we want flying cars. We would like quicker and less constrained options from getting from A to B but flying around in a car, while it may be a representation of the future with such freedom, when you think about it, cannot really deliver that value, at least in cities. Indeed, the fact that flying cars do not exist where they might be of value — in less dense areas — leads us to question whether people want them at all. This is at least enough to give us pause on the issue.

Now, let’s turn to Twitter. This is the representation of technology leading to trivialisation of life, “a waste of time.” Personally, today that belongs to Candy Crush Saga but I digress. We should question the premise that Twitter is really trivial. Now people will talk about the ability to find out information quickly with Twitter as a fast news medium but I think that is more an application than what Twitter is. By contrast, consider this short piece by Paul Graham from 2009:

Om Malik is the most recent of many people to ask why Twitter is such a big deal.

The reason is that it’s a new messaging protocol, where you don’t specify the recipients. New protocols are rare. Or more precisely, new protocols that take off are. There are only a handful of commonly used ones: TCP/IP (the Internet), SMTP (email), HTTP (the web), and so on. So any new protocol is a big deal. But Twitter is a protocol owned by a private company. That’s even rarer.

Curiously, the fact that the founders of Twitter have been slow to monetize it may in the long run prove to be an advantage. Because they haven’t tried to control it too much, Twitter feels to everyone like previous protocols. One forgets it’s owned by a private company. That must have made it easier for Twitter to spread.

Twitter is not just 140 characters. It is a new communications network. The best example of this is how you can communicate with customer support of companies. When you have a problem with, say, an airline, it is often easier to tweet about it and wait for the airline to respond than to contact the airline’s support number. Now this is currently an advantage from congestion but, in reality, you can see how it may be superior overall. First, complaints are limited to 140 characters. That is a feature, not a bug. That means if a company is getting lots of complaints about something, it can see it really quickly. Second, it is easier to find a way of communicating with a company via Twitter than searching for support numbers. It is just straightforward. Twitter is an address book with easy search. My point here is that Twitter is a new communications protocol and more than just social media. That puts it on a path to something more than just the trivial.

The flying cars/tweet comparison hits at the core of the most fundamental and transformational technological revolutions: those to transport and communication. In that regard, they have at least an equal footing.


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