“Principles don’t change, people do.”
— Carlos Wallace
I am an optimist; you’ll know that with certainty if you read Cutting the Cord. I’m optimistic about people and about the future of mankind. History bears me out. By virtually every measure, the world is a better place today than it has been in the past.
The number of people living in poverty has been on a steady downward march for two centuries. Child and maternal mortality have dropped sharply, with the decline especially rapid in developing countries over the last few decades. The share of people suffering from hunger and dying from famine has fallen for years. Meanwhile, literacy and schooling have grown enormously, helping the entire world grow more productive. We create more wealth than ever before even as we work fewer hours and enjoy more leisure time. Humanity has grown healthier, wealthier, and happier than at any time in history.
This enormous progress has constituted humanity’s “Great Escape” from hunger, disease, and early death and it applies, with a few unfortunate exceptions, to nearly every part of the world. How did it happen?
Human ingenuity. Technological innovation. Visions of a better world.
But we are far from finished. There is still too much poverty, too much intolerance, not enough constructive collaboration. We are on the cusp of even more material and social progress. How we learn, our educational system, is being revolutionized. Health care is being transformed. Even the way we communicate—already the subject of major change—is due for a leap in progress.
Yes, I know about the dire predictions of disastrous climate change. Even now, at the time of writing, we are struggling with coronavirus. But I have an abiding belief in humanity and the ability of humans to survive and improve. When we decide to take climate change seriously, scientists, engineers, and even politicians will figure out how society can mitigate climate change or, failing that, accommodate without disastrous consequences. By the time you read this, we’ll have conquered coronavirus.
My optimism about humanity includes a belief that technology will solve the material and environmental problems of society; education will take care of the rest.
There have been few technologies that have promised more and delivered more than the personal, portable, handheld phone. The cell phone has already had a major impact on people everywhere. As we’ve seen, a large chunk of that broad decline in poverty can be attributed to the cell phone. Yet the cell phone has only been with us for less than 40 years—we really are only at the end of the beginning of its true impact.
My good fortune has been to enjoy a long career working with numerous extraordinary people in a series of equally extraordinary environments. My optimism, coupled with that experience, endowed me with a vision of how the world can and will be if we allow ourselves to create it.
It’s also a vision of the world as I want it to be.
The next chapters of the book present that vision. My vision may sound like wishful thinking or, even science fiction, but it is based upon science and fact. This vision will not come to pass, however, without an understanding of guiding principles that will help us realize it. These principles emerged from experiences both bitter and joyful, from hard-earned lessons wrung from up-close engagements in business and innovation. They express my vision of an even better world for more people. I find them to be practical and useful; I hope you will, too.
Technology is the application of science to create products and services that improve the lives of people.
It is the human benefit that makes a device, a method, or a process into a technology. A discovery or invention may be scientific and an object of public curiosity. It is not a technology until it is applied to improve people’s lives in some way. The description of a technology always starts with its benefit to humans and humanity.
The greatest danger facing an engineer is yielding to the temptation to create something solely for its cleverness, complexity, or novelty.
It’s easy for an engineer or inventor to fall in love with a concept or technical feature and forget about the important people component of technology. The trend in recent years has been “more”—more power, more pixels, more megabits, more megahertz, more megaflops, more megatons, ad infinitum. Have we forgotten the beauty of simplicity, the elegance of efficiency? Engineers and designers need to keep their users front and center.
The most difficult decision an engineer faces is knowing when a design is ready for her or his customer.
It’s relatively easy to describe a perfect product or design, but it’s impossible to create one, or even to know when it’s perfect. Yet the decision that a product is “ready” must be faced. We know how to describe a bad product; it’s one that frustrates the user, that doesn’t do what was promised. A product is ready for the market when the customer does not experience its imperfections. Learning that is a lifelong endeavor.
The radio frequency spectrum is public property (at least in the United States).
That is how it should be. In the field of communications, the people license bands of radio spectrum to entities like the cellular operators. We allow them to use the radio channels, but we retain ownership and management. In acquiring the right to use these frequency channels, these entities accept the obligation to use that channel in the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.” If they don’t, they should be obligated to return them. As we will discuss, however, many licensees behave as though a segment of spectrum is their permanent property.
At some point in the future, inevitably, most of the spectrum will be shared among most users, in contrast to the existing approach where most operators have exclusive use of their channels. The idea of exclusive use of the spectrum by any one entity is sub-optimal. With modern technology, it is possible to have multiple entities share the same band of radio spectrum with higher quality and lower cost compared with today’s approach.
Spectrum auctions trade short-term expediency for long-term effective use of the radio frequency spectrum.
Auctions of the radio frequency spectrum tend to concentrate ownership of spectrum licenses with the wealthiest operators, who usually focus on the most lucrative markets and tend to neglect customers in rural and poor urban areas. Further, the money raised by auctioning spectrum is usually a small fraction of the real value of that spectrum.
There has never, in the history of radio, been a scarcity of radio spectrum and there never need be a scarcity in the future.
A mistaken perception about a shortage of radio channels has dogged the management of spectrum for its entire history. That perception was reinforced when the U.S. Congress first authorized and then encouraged the FCC to auction spectrum licenses. In fact, since the invention of radio, technologists have created new spectrum faster than applications for that spectrum have been invented. (See Chapters 5 and 11 for further discussion of The Law of Spectrum Capacity.)
People are inherently, naturally, fundamentally mobile. Any product or service that interferes with that mobility is suboptimal.
It took over 100 years for a large segment of humanity to adopt fixed telephones as a form of communications. In less than 40 years, about two-thirds of the people in the world use mobile phones. The number of mobile phones is growing, the number of fixed phones is dropping. Fixed telephony was never the kind of life-necessity that mobile phones became. Portability aligns technology with human mobility. Look around: nobody is where they want to be. On freeways, in airports, on sidewalks, everybody is going somewhere else.
This principle becomes truer every day. The fundamental mobility of people has driven innovation and growth in e-commerce, on-demand services, ride hailing, and more. Many new businesses are now “mobile-first” because they recognize where the real leverage and value are for their product or service. Mobile money in Sub-Saharan Africa is a paramount example of this principle. Locked out of traditional financial services—and often unable to access them physically—cell phone users began swapping airtime with each other as currency. That initial use eventually evolved into a full-blown financial system. Individuals used their mobile and portable devices to adapt financial services to their needs, rather than trying to squeeze into the traditional system that didn’t fit their needs and didn’t align with mobility.
Connections are made between people not places.
When we observe the “world getting smaller” and the “death of distance,” a map looks like points of communication. In a technical sense, that might be true. But for what we care about, connection and communication happen between people—and that should be a technological focus. The Internet of things (IoT) will contribute to the welfare of society but not nearly as much as the power offered by enhanced collaboration. We’re only now beginning to fully recognize the economic and social potential of collaboration.
This has been an underlying principle for the cell phone’s impact in many developing countries. Cell phones have reduced price dispersion across markets and improved productivity because they have enabled greater information sharing between people. Farmers can call each other or their agents in cities to determine where to sell their crop. Cell phones are helping reduce government corruption because they reduce the need to rely on connecting with an office (a place), where there is no guarantee of talking to someone who will help you. Unnecessary travel costs time and money. Connections between people, not places, have increased accountability and responsiveness.
Customization is the inexorable direction of products and services.
Although we all derived from a common ancestor, no two of us are identical. We have different needs, different aspirations, and unique feelings. Mass production in manufacturing drove the creation of market silos. Customers looking for an optimized solution for their own benefit have instead received something created for someone that doesn’t exist: the average person. The goal of producers should be to optimize solutions for each individual. The use of cell phones in Africa to establish and validate personal identities is an important manifestation of this principle.
Corollary: a product or service optimized for one individual will be sub-optimal for every other individual.
The larger the group that creators of products or services attempt to subsume, the less relevant their product will be to individuals in that group. The future of cell phones is personalization and customization—there will be all kinds of devices, not one universal device for everything.
The concept of the mobile app is instructive. Apple and Google persuade us that the value of their operating systems lies in flexibility and simplicity. Simple? One has only to sort through millions of apps to find one that is helpful. The phone of the future will know enough about you to select a relevant app—or to create a new one tailored to your existence.
Further Corollary: A product or service that purports to do all things for all people will, most frequently, do none of them optimally.
The best example of this is the cell phone itself. Do you ever wonder why we still call it a “phone”? In addition to voice communication, the cell phone is now used for texting, email, Internet browsing, listening to podcasts, watching movies, and on and on. It’s a timer, flashlight, compass, and fall detector. It can measure your pulse rate, take an electrocardiogram, count the number of steps you take and show you the route you took. You are deluged with data. And yet, the simple act of making a call, for most people, involves holding the flat phone against their rounded faces in an awkward arm position without regard to positioning the microphone and speaker appropriately close to their ears or mouth. Is there something wrong with that picture?
On the customization principles and its two corollaries, the example of AT&T in the 20th century is instructive. Unlike Motorola and the radio common carriers and even General Electric, the Bell System did “not have a marketing culture.” Its people were “derisive” when it came to “customers wanting colored telephones.” This was clear in Bell’s dealings with business customers, who went to AT&T with requests about system connections and configurations:
“AT&T would say fine, we’ve studied your needs, this is your systems. And they’d reply: Well, that’s fine, but we’d like to see some alternatives, or we’d like to see something changed here or changed there. And AT&T would say: No, we’ve studied your needs, this is your system. That was the attitude; they did not respect their customers.”
When competition eventually was forced upon the Bell System, it couldn’t cope.
Written and spoken languages severely limit our ability to reason, explain, and entertain.
Authors resort to metaphors, similes, and analogies, none of which are precise. When these fail, pictures, charts, maps and graphs help. And when these fall short, they make up new words. Do you grok me?
When we created the DynaTAC in 1973, we labeled the buttons for dialing and hanging up as “off-hook” and “on-hook.” At the time, that’s what people did when they made a call with landline phones: the handset was picked up from and placed back on the cradle, or hook. Labeling the buttons this way was intended to mimic that action. Do the icons on your cell phone remind you of the function of the app they represent or are they merely an attempt to reinforce a brand?
- Proof of a product’s usefulness comes when users become so dependent upon and attached to it that they will not give it up, regardless of defects or negative impact.
This applies across all sectors—private, public, and nonprofit. There is no such thing as a perfect product or service, so it’s always better to get something into your customers’ hands to see how they react and use it. And you can’t do that unless you learn to place yourself in the mind of your customer, to understand your customer’s needs and challenges better than she or he does.
- The best way to have people think outside of the box is to not create the box in the first place.
Why do we insist on categorizing our searches for knowledge, our teaching methods, and our problem-solving processes into narrow silos like geography and history, electrical and computer engineering, philosophy and language? Specialization has a role in science; but in the real world, solutions are broad in scope. The natural impulse of organizations is to segment lines of work, to organize. But the creation of a new product may require a dozen specialties to collaborate. Organization needs to be by function, not by an arbitrary criterion based on the early and incomplete education of employees who were taught in narrow silos.
- Criticism should be embraced and cultivated, not merely tolerated or praised.
When someone takes time out of their life to think about you and provides you with what they believe is useful information you should be grateful. You don’t have to believe the information or act on it, but a positive attitude and a truly open mind will increase the possibility that it might be helpful. Managers and leaders too often honor their rhetorical commitment to criticism only in the breach.
- We are horribly Inefficient at virtually everything that we do.
The sun creates energy out of matter by a process called “nuclear fusion.” In the process of fusion, two atoms of hydrogen are squeezed together to combine into an atom of helium. It takes an enormous amount of energy to do that, but far more energy is released (along with Gamma rays and other stuff) in the reaction. Matter has been converted to energy. Let’s compare that with how we create the energy that’s useful in society today, the energy that lights and cools our houses.
- 1 gram of material converted Energy released Ratio
- Hydrogen fusion A trillion Joules (10>12)
- Uranium fission 73 billion Joules (73 x 10>9) 13 times less efficient
- Coal burning 333 Joules 3 billion times less efficient
We are similarly inefficient in using the radio frequency spectrum for communications and entertainment. We are a trillion times more efficient at moving data from one location to another using radio waves today than Marconi was 120 years ago. Yet we are still unimaginably inefficient compared with the potential efficiency of spectrum use. In the challenge of expanding the capacity of the radio frequency spectrum, we have barely scratched the surface. We already understand the technology that will expand existing capacity a further trillion times.
The Law of Spectrum Capacity—known to some as Cooper’s Law—is based on observations made while I was engaged with the company I co-founded, ArrayComm. That observation states that our technologists have used their skills to double the capacity of the radio waves every two-and-a-half years, every 30 months, since radio was invented. As with energy production, we already know that we can continue this improvement for another 60 years with existing technology. The potential for virtually indefinite growth in efficiency exists in nearly everything because we are so dismally inefficient at nearly everything.
Self-organizing and self-optimizing systems always outperform hierarchical systems, but it takes patience for that to be true.
Elements of a self-organizing system act upon each other to achieve a common objective. The system continually modifies itself to come closer to perfection. Yet this modification comes through feedback and learning, which takes time. A hierarchical system might be able to more quickly send a signal through vertically organized channels. But it will inevitably be more quickly out of date—and less able to respond to future change—than a self-organized system. Examples of such systems include communication networks, smart antennas, and democracy.
A better world, made possible through technology, is not a foregone conclusion. Visions of progress do not always become real. There are very real forces at work that threaten to limit and even stifle further human progress. These forces are political, economic, legal, and philosophical. But viewed through the lens of technology, the world can get better—and I believe it will.