The Unpredictable Evolution of Technology

Tue Dec 7, 2010

George Basalla’s The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge UP: 1988) is a fine book, filled with many illuminating examples. In a section on how fads influence technological development, however, Basalla writes:

By the mid-1980s, the home computer boom appeared to be nothing more than a short-lived and, for some computer manufacturers, expensive fad. Consumers who were expected to use these machines to maintain their financial records, educate their children, and plan for their family’s future ended up playing electronic games on them, an activity that soon lost its novelty, pleasure, and excitement. As a result, a device that was initially heralded as the forerunner of a new technological era was a spectacular failure that threatened to bankrupt the firms that had invested billions of dollars in its development. (185)

The entire chapter, with its discussion of government-funded nuclear power projects, and the preceding one, with its discussion of the role of military investment in technological development, had the makings of an epiphany about the internet. Hindsight, etc.

I do wonder what the sales figures of games specifically for personal computers would reveal here. I suspect that Basalla’s analysis was essentially correct from that vantagepoint.