4 min read.Updated: 21 Dec 2020, 11:22 AM ISTANDY KESSLER, The Wall Street Journal
The history of digital technology is littered with examples of lowering costs—ever since chips were invented in 1958, things have magically gotten smaller, cheaper, faster, better
Woody Allen was onto something when he said “80% of success is showing up." Sure, that gives short shrift to all the work we put in—Thomas Edison’s “99% perspiration." But never has showing up been more important than in 2020. You had to be ready when panic and turmoil and lockdowns hit.
Lots of things didn’t show up on day one: N95 masks, ventilators, toilet paper, kettle bells, flour and common sense. But so many things did show up during lockdowns. Teleconferencing has always been lurking in the background, but Zoom was ready. Where would we be without it? Same for the cloud computing it runs on, which was ready to scale. Add broadband to the list. Europe, with foolish network-neutrality laws, had to throttle speeds.
Telemedicine was ready. I wrote last year that I had fired my doctor and taken up telemedicine and I got tons of emails telling me I would die soon. I’m still here, and now you probably use it. Streaming via Netflix and a dozen other services was ready, and then some. Next year major studio films will appear simultaneously in theaters and on streaming services—previously unthinkable.
The “ready" list was amazing: Contactless payments (though Apple Pay didn’t work with masks), meal delivery, grocery delivery, retail logistics, e-billing, ticketless travel, airport-security line-cutting retinal scans, motion-sensing Purell dispensers. Amazon was ready with essentials, but six weeks to deliver a book? Yes, I’ve heard of Kindle. And weirdly, ballpark crowd noise sold to videogame companies was sold back to teams. Accidentally ready!
You can probably name dozens of others. But the bigger question is: Why was all this stuff ready to go?
The history of digital technology is littered with examples of lowering costs—ever since chips were invented in 1958, things have magically gotten smaller, cheaper, faster, better. The next step was getting humans out of the way. Operators. Tellers. Librarians. Stockbrokers. Taxi dispatchers. Ticket handlers. Every time, quality went higher and higher. TV and camera resolutions. Wireless 3G, 4G, 5G communications. Connected social networks.
Yeah, great history, but that doesn’t explain why things were ready in 2020. OK, for that you have to understand the psyche of Silicon Valley. There is another aspect of quality that’s rarely discussed, and that’s convenience. I could call a taxi service, but I’d rather simply click a button on my phone. Basically techies are lazy, and thank goodness. No, not work lazy: They do 80-hour weeks coding till dawn. But often their goal is to get a machine to do things for them so they don’t have to do it themselves. No one really has to DoorDash dinner, but enough techies were too lazy to drive to Taco Bell.
This is a very American phenomenon. Kind of a “pursuit of happiness" thing. We’re busy and have better things to do than sit in traffic, wait in lines, pay with cash, sort photos, go to the movies, sit knees-in-chest on a plane. We’re independent and appreciate the choice we have—to be lazy.
I think messenger RNA, mRNA, which both Pfizer and Moderna used to create Covid vaccines, was just a shortcut for scientists so they didn’t have to do so much work. Moderna had a vaccine candidate ready two days after the coronavirus genetic sequence was released by China in January. Lazy? The best kind.
That’s the history of innovation, from plows to pumps to pizza-making robots. Someone too lazy to do it the old tedious way invents the future.
Early adopters try things, even if expensive. The original 2007 iPhone was, in retrospect, tiny, slow and kinda wimpy. Fanboys charged ahead anyway. Just like there was enough of a market for Zoom before the rest of the world verbed it.
Of course, plenty of things were 2020 no-shows. It would have been nice to have self-driving cars. And ask any parent or grandparent: Videoconferenced education has been awful for K-12 and a mess for colleges (where’s that tuition rebate form?). Would’ve been nice to have a Primer—a tablet for self-paced learning, hopefully under development.
Medical supply chains, which ran through China for masks and antibiotics, were a huge failure. Three-dimensional printing was small-time, and never scaled up to deliver N95 masks and other essentials. And government was clearly unready, scrambling to hire Cobol programmers to update 50-year-old unemployment-claims systems.
Still, society was surprisingly ready for this pandemic. Many think we’ve experienced a compression: Things that were going to happen over the next five to 10 years anyway came about much more quickly. I think that’s right, but many things we needed most already existed, and only need to scale.
So please encourage workarounds to many of today’s ways of doing things, especially in eds, meds and feds. It’s almost guaranteed the next turmoil will be totally different. Let the lazy (and crazy) run amok creating this decade’s inventions to show up during whatever 2030 tries to throw at us.