Your Innovation Outlook May Be a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Five decades ago, Moore's Law—a specific philosophy on technical innovation in the semiconductor industry—helped set the tone for a technology revolution that hasn't slowed down since. Likewise, your association's potential for embracing technology should be defined by a willingness to see the big picture, not your current limitations.

Gordon Moore wasn’t aiming for a revolution when he made a prediction about technology. The revolution just came along anyway.

In April 1965, Moore wrote an article for the trade publication Electronics in which he argued, based on economic models and technological progress, that the number of transistors one could feasibly include on a single integrated circuit would double each year. This, he surmised, would lead to the possibility that computing would become mainstream.

“Integrated electronics will make electronic techniques more generally available throughout all of society, performing many functions that presently are done inadequately by other techniques or not done at all,” Moore wrote [PDF]. “The principal advantages will be lower costs and greatly simplified design payoffs from a ready supply of low-cost functional packages.”

Moore, at the time a top executive with Fairchild Semiconductor, went on to found the chip manufacturer Intel—ensuring that his company would play a key role in seeing that Moore’s Law, as it came to be called, would remain true for generations to come. (That said, he did update his projections in 1975 [PDF], allowing for this doubling of transistors to happen once every two years. He did so during a speech at IEEE’s International Electron Devices Meeting, perhaps making it the most important association meeting in technology history.)

For the most part, his informed prediction has held up, allowing Intel to become one of the most important companies of the 20th century and ensuring that it would always have a core mission to follow.

Will Moore’s Law Ever Run Out of Steam?

Now, with the law’s 50th anniversary having come and gone, much of the commentary about the theory rotates around how much life it has left.

Moore himself, in a recent interview with New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman, joked that he simply got lucky.

“I guess one thing I’ve learned is once you’ve made a successful prediction, avoid making another one,” the 86-year-old Moore told Friedman. “I’ve avoided opportunities to predict the next 10 or 50 years.”

But Moore’s Law has proved resilient, partly because it became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It gave a then-new industry something to aim for and dream about. It was a bold prediction that created the potential for seeing more, rather than seeing less.

Even if it does fade out at some point, that’s OK. Gordon Moore’s idea has served its purpose—not as a mathematical theory, but as a driver of innovation in an industry that needed a kick in the pants.

You’ll never go wrong by aiming high.

Don’t Limit Yourself

You will, however, find yourself in trouble if you aim too low.

In 1995, 30 years after Moore’s prediction, a guy arguably as bright as Moore made a prediction of his own, and it turned out to be embarrassingly wrong. Clifford Stoll, an astronomer known for his early pursuits in computer hacking, wrote a book called Silicon Snake Oil, in which he predicted that most of the things we currently take for granted about today’s internet—its value for commerce, its replacement of the Gutenberg press—wouldn’t take place, and the internet as a whole would be a passing fad.

In an essay for Newsweek, Stoll argued in a contrarian take that most of the futurists pushing the mainstream potential of the internet were arguing for “baloney.”

“Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher, and no computer network will change the way government works,” he wrote.

Imagine if wet blankets ran the world. If the naysayers, not the futurists, were the ones who defined our potential. It’d be a pretty depressing world, right?

But the reason Stoll’s criticism failed is actually pretty telling: His argument, essentially, is that people will greatly prefer human interaction to the weak imitation that they will find online. “A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee,” Stoll wrote—and nobody would disagree with this point.

Replacing human interaction entirely, as Stoll assumed, didn’t turn out to be the internet’s reason for being. The failings of the 1995 internet—poor search capabilities, low-quality online content—have largely fallen by the wayside as innovators like Google and Wikipedia have helped to fix these issues.

And in the end, people use social media not simply to connect themselves to anonymous people in the wider world, but to deepen connections with the ones in “meatspace.” We don’t go online to simply talk to people we’ll never meet otherwise—often, these connections lead to real-life ones at meetings.

Stoll wasn’t necessarily wrong about the state of the internet in 1995. He just couldn’t see beyond it. He didn’t see what was out there and imagine more; instead, he thought that was all there could be.

(In 2010, Stoll disowned his own commentary in a comment thread on Boing Boing. Seems fitting.)

When Data Trumps the Wet Blanket

Imagine if wet blankets ran the world. If the naysayers, not the futurists, were the ones who defined our potential. It’d be a pretty depressing world, right?

Now, think in terms of your own association. Are there more wet blankets than dry ones? Do you see outside technology as a hindrance to your bigger goals, rather than as an enabler of those goals?

The truth is, there’s probably a little Moore’s Law and a little Silicon Snake Oil inside every association. Your board probably is closer to the vast gray area that lies between these two poles in terms of considering technology, and your investment in cloud computing, the mobile web, and big data—among other things—is probably tied to the constant tension between innovation and playing it safe.

But as you fight the good fight for a more innovative approach, let me leave you this: Moore had numbers and hard data to build his prediction on, while Stoll wrote an entire book based on what was essentially a gut feeling.

Given the right circumstances, good data can be enough to put a wet blanket out to dry.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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