In retrospect, it turns out that Napster was a harbinger of our current world of unlimited selection and instant gratification. What can recent history teach us about the future of digital technology and category design? Here are 3 things we took away from a recent conversation with Internet History podcast host and web 2.0 pioneer Brian McCullough, author of the upcoming book, How the Internet Happened.
I like history where it’s basically people fumbling around in the dark and making it almost by accident. – Brian McCullough on the history of the internet
History Is Made By People Making It Up on the Fly
Reading history from a couple hundred years ago makes it seem like everyone’s a genius and every event was inevitable and logical. Delving into recent history, on the other hand, and talking to the people who actually made that history, gives you a sense of what was really happening. People fumbling and stumbling until they find something that works and running with it. Nothing is inevitable, nothing is logical. History is made by people just like us; people who are doing their best in the moment, failing often, getting back up and trying again.
Everything Online Exists Because of Online Advertising
As much as we may think that the internet has changed everything, those changes have been in specific areas and mostly thanks to the ability of someone to throw an ad against it. Marc Andreessen pointed out recently that the big technology challenge over the next 20 years is to transform industries like finance, healthcare and education that so far have been left virtually untouched by the digital revolution.
People’s Opinion of Technology is Shifting
When the iPhone first came out in 2007, and people were reconnecting with high school friends on Facebook, technology was a marvel that improved our lives. In just 10 years popular opinion is changing, and Silicon Valley leaders can feel it. Digital technology, and especially social media, taps into one of the most powerful drives of our species, the need to be part of a community. But we’re struggling to adapt to all this new technology. As a result, we’re seeing a movement toward “ethical design,” so technology enhances our lives rather than controls it.
All the biggest tech companies we can name today, from Amazon to Facebook, were called insane at some point. Even if you’re building a company in a dumb category, or a category that has already been “done” by other competitors, you can transform the category simply by doing it differently. The key is to reimagine the category, don’t just build a slightly better mousetrap.
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Brian McCullough is the host of the Internet History podcast and a web 2.0 business pioneer, having founded or co-founded the following companies: WhereAreTheJobs.com, WhoToTalkTo.com and ResumeWriters.com, Penelope and Maxwell. Brian was named to a 2016 TED Residency and is writing the upcoming book, HOW THE INTERNET HAPPENED, to be published by Liveright, a subsidiary of W.W. Norton.