Vague, but exciting
Posted by Mark Bennett on May 6, 2009
While it was two months ago that folks celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the submission of Tim Berners-Lee’s paper that proposed what would become the World Wide Web, a hat tip to our colleague Jasbir Grewal for the link, reminding us to thank those responsible for making our blog possible. Thanks also for a good example of the way innovations typically come to be.
Tim’s supervisor, Mike Sendall, wrote the comment, “Vague, but exciting” on the paper, which captures so much in just three words what frequently occurs in the process of innovation. A problem existed at CERN, where Tim worked. He had an idea for how to address the problem. The idea had a certain appeal, but it was built on top of things that were either very new themselves or that still had to be worked out, so it remained to be seen whether the proposal could really work. In other words, there was no, “Aha, of course, this is exactly what needs to be done! Thank you, Tim!”
20 years later, even though we see a lot of problems still to be worked out with the World Wide Web, the default view looking back in time is typically, “Of course, any fool can see how the internet and the need to come up with a way to organize data on it as a web of associated documents, naturally leads to the notion of a hypertext protocol, blah, blah…” This is the same kind of trick our minds play on us regarding ATM machines, cars, telephones, etc. Once we get over the adoption of an innovation (which is itself no mean feat), it’s like a cascade of switches suddenly flip in our brains that rationalize why it was always a great idea and destiny for it to have happened. It’s how we cope with change. It’s not very different with political and societal change. We (as a general population) resist and resist, a breakthrough occurs, and then we’re all, “Well, yeah, can you believe how dumb/prejudiced/naive we were?” Our minds then typically focus on what’s wrong now and who’s going to fix it.
The problem is that this sets us to thinking about innovation the wrong way, because our memory of how innovations we experience today came to be is often flawed. This flaw can then blind us to approaches that help foster innovation. It’s comments like, “Vague, but exciting” written on 20-year old proposals, which serve to remind us of how hard and uncertain the process of innovation can really be.