A peculiar asymmetry warps most histories of technological innovation. The innovators are treated as visionary heroes, while the users and consumers of the innovations are treated as a faceless marketplace that finally grasped the importance of the proffered invention.
Everybody knows about Apple Computer’s Wozniak and Jobs. Yet who’s written the profiles of Apple’s first thousand customers? Yes, Intel’s Noyce, Hoff and Faggin pioneered the microprocessor. But who were the early adopters that gave Intel insight into what that chip could really do? Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston revolutionized personal computing software with the invention of VisiCalc. But who knows what 50 financial services firms first transformed themselves by using that software spreadsheet in unexpected ways?
Of course, these innovations today would be described as brilliant failures had they failed to catch on. But since it’s seemingly so much easier to describe the achievements and personalities of the innovators than the character and risks taken by the innovation adopters, history is accordingly skewed.
That’s why A Nation Transformed by Information and Systems, Experts and Computers represent a healthy change of historical perspective and pace. These university press anthologies are filled with details-some pieces excruciatingly so-of how, in fact, innovation is the relentless co-evolutionary synthesis of innovator and adopter. Indeed, one could make a very powerful case that, at the earliest stages of a new technology or technique, the brilliant customer is at least as important as the brilliant innovator.