As amazing as inventions such as cell phones, computers, and GPS navigation all are, I'm sometimes surprised at how slowly our technology proceeds. After all, if technology is based on logic, why do we have to suffer through version 1.0 before we get to version 4.3?
One reason is that like in chess, there's a limit to how many moves ahead an engineer can see.
Another reason is that the competitive process tempts companies to put their products on the market as soon as possible, and often before they're really ready. You wouldn’t buy bread that was pulled out of the oven too soon, but the public is sometimes willing to buy version 1.0 of unproven technology just to be the first to have it.
A third reason we don’t jump right to version 4.3 has to do with human frailties. In fact, we often don’t get to version 1.0 for the same reason.
Like many people, I have an idea for a product that I think would be popular and useful. While it's not necessary to build a prototype to obtain a patent, a prototype is useful in attracting investors or convincing a company that licensing an invention would be in their best interests. So I approached an electrical engineer with a proposition that he build a prototype and we would work together and share any eventual profits. He decided we needed a mechanical engineer as well, so we brought one on board. I drew up a contract by which they were to produce a working prototype and some drawings within 90 days.
For the next three years, the engineers screwed around with different designs and delays of various kinds. I was patient with them, even though the device is simple enough that I'd been able to build a crude, clunky prototype myself.
Finally, in accord with the terms of the contract, I sent them a notice advising that they had a month to deliver the product.
One of the engineers was outraged. Oh, so angry. He called my notice "absurd" and told me that the delays were my fault, the ball was in my court, and that I was trying to pull a fast one on the gullible engineers.
Dude, you're three years past your deadline.
Even though I wrote a book about truth and spin, it never ceases to amaze me when people come up with their own versions of reality to make themselves emotionally comfortable. People just hate it when you point out facts they don’t want to face.
So I don’t even respond. Let him have his version of reality, I think. I'd be doing him a favor I don’t feel like doing by grounding him in reality. He was so rude I wanted to leave him with the natural consequences of delusion.
I just hired another engineer. This time, I decide to pay him rather than enter into any kind of profit sharing deal. It worked a little better. This new guy is clever and competent, but still, I have to keep asking him how it's going and forgive missed deadlines in order to avoid starting the whole process a third time.
The point? My experience with engineers is that they can be brilliant, but strangely incapable of keeping even the most basic promises.
One reason technology doesn't proceed faster is that it's designed by humans, and humans can be very quirky.
And this: American in particular seem susceptible to an odd way of thinking in which a new product is envisioned, and within weeks, someone is supposed to write them a check for a million dollars. Anyone who has ever taken an idea beyond the idea stage knows better. It's a long and winding road, and it may well be a dead end.