Roads Not Taken #1
“But it’s worth at least thinking about the possibility of a dollar bust. The reason the housing bust had such devastating consequences was a failure of imagination: Lenders, regulators, credit raters, and others simply couldn’t believe that house prices would ever fall the way they did, so they were blindsided. ” — Business Week
This quote talks about the need to contemplate what the U.S. might do if the dollar went bust; the idea is that it is so far fetched no one thinks about, so if happened the damage would be doubly extreme because of the massive lack of preparation. The quote cites the housing bust as falling into this category, precisely because no one in the industry even entertained the notion.
This intrigues me, because I think we miss the value of Roads Not Taken everyday.
In 1985 I read a short story by Harry Turtledove, “The Road Not Taken”. To summarize:
[The aliens'] … method of manipulating gravity is absurdly simple, and they were thus able to begin utilizing aircraft, spacecraft, and even faster than light travel during their Age of Sail. This enabled them to engage in of wars of conquest not only on a planetary but a galactic scale. However, gravity technology by itself had no application other than transportation, and was such a bizarre discovery that their scientific theorems couldn’t accommodate it. As a result, the scientific method was abandoned and their technological development ground to a halt. They have never achieved, for example, their equivalent of the Industrial Revolution, much less the Information Revolution. [...] In contrast, humanity somehow missed developing gravity technology, and its unfocused expenditure of creativity and resources thus resulted in less immediately rewarding and ultimately more versatile applications and development of a very wide range of knowledge – medicine, heavy industry, electric motors, computers, nuclear power, etc.
For nearly a quarter century that story has stuck with me, reminding me to try to consciously take off the blinders everyday life and experience has put on me. This idea is common, with phrases like “think outside the box” used everywhere.
As I look around everyday life, I see some interesting roads not taken. Here’s a first example:
Broadband in the United States
Does anybody even question asymmetrical broadband anymore? Since I first got my hands on a cable modem, it bugged me that the upstream speed was so slow compared to downstream. It is driven by the nature of HTTP; web browsing is primarily a downstream intensive protocol. So it makes sense to sell consumers broadband that is primarily good at moving data to the customer, not from the the customer.
Isn’t that sort of … self-fulfilling?
Innovation expands to fill a vacuum; innovators look to use what the platform can give them. So, what advancements were delayed or skipped because broadband in the U.S. wasn’t good at upstream? Would blogs be more commonly hosted on home servers? Would personal homepages be more commonly hosted at home? Would there be an infrastructure for moving media from home to work, or home to phone, built around abundant upstream bandwidth? How much of the shape of today’s Internet was driven by this broadband model?
And what about really fast broadband? Gigabit to the home? What business models are out there, if everyone could be their own Hulu? Their own Youtube?
No, I don’t know what was possible; I don’t even suppose; that is the point. But I do wonder what opportunities were missed. Sometimes you really don’t know what is behind a door without opening it; what is down a path without walking that path. Projecting and predicting what might happen isn’t always useful, or accurate. I fear we have become a bit too comfortable staying on the roads we know.
Certainly, U.S. government policy seems to prioritize protecting current business models over the creation of new ones. Whether that is by design or a natural consequence of being at the down end of rapid economic expansion is a question. Still, there it is.
What possibilities do you miss everyday, without even noticing? What roads don’t you take?