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When a technology first appears in the world, it is not understood: no one knows what to do with it.

In a review of the Biomark 96.96 Dynamic Array, a microfluidic chip made by Fluidigm, a startup in South San Francisco (see “Shoveling Water), David Rotman, Technology Review’s editor, asks why such chips are not more widely used. The Fluidigm chip, which (considered purely as an artifact) is a very beautiful thing, “represents a decade of successive inventions,” Rotman writes, and such chips, in general, are “a fundamental breakthrough in how researchers can interact with the biological world.” Microfluidic chips “allow biologists and chemists to manipulate tiny amounts of fluid in a precise and highly automated way.” And yet these chips, which bear some resemblance to an electronic microprocessor, “with valves replacing transistors and channels replacing wires,” will not live up to the comparison to microelectronics until they have made the transition “from promising laboratory tool to widely used commercial technology.” Possible applications include a variety of diagnostic uses, but the technology still lacks what the software industry calls the “killer app.”

Rotman reviews the chip and Brian Arthur’s book The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, and like many contributors to our Reviews section, he uses the occasion to make a broader point about technology. Arthur, a former professor of economics and population studies at Stanford, wishes to propose a grand theory of technology, akin to the one for science that Thomas Kuhn set out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What interests Rotman is Arthur’s explanation of why truly new technologies, like microfluidic chips, are so slow to be adopted.

Arthur makes a distinction between bodies of technology, or “domains,” such as electronics, photonics, and microfluidics, and their individual technologies. Domains emerge “piece by piece.” Technologies within domains may be adopted quickly, but only after those domains have been encountered first by users who are bewildered. What are these technologies? How are they used? What do they allow people to do that could not be done before, or at least not as efficiently? Always, new domains betray “missing pieces” that technologists must develop before useful applications can be successfully commercialized. All this, says Arthur, “normally takes decades. It is a very, very slow process.”

Arthur’s observation is consistent with a general principle sometimes called “Cringely’s Law,” after the pundit Robert X. Cringely, who proposed it. Cringely’s Law states that short-term adoption of new technologies never occurs as quickly as we expect, but their long-term impact is far greater than we realize.

One market-oriented way of thinking about the protracted adoption of new technologies is to understand that among the “missing pieces” of new domains are the modes of business that will sustain the constituent technologies. That is to say: the real economic value of new technologies is almost always imperfectly understood because the technologies’ markets do not yet exist.

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Credit: Mark Ostow
Video by JR Rost

Tagged: Computing

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