Innovation and unpredictability: everyone needs a 303 (but not for $1,500)


Photo: Kleine Gelbe Ente

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The novelty of disruputive technology soon becomes second nature. Social networking made the web intimate, a lingua franca to even the barely computer-literate, but its real achievement was to make itself mundane. Apple gobbled the Walkman market whole in just a few years. But the iPod is already at least three revolutions ago in Cupertino. In consumer electronics, the light always burns bright and brief.

Apple, now one of the world's wealthiest companies, knows this well; it could have been sold for parts 15 years ago were it not for one critical hiring decision. And for every Apple, there are a dozen Commodores.

Remember Dr. An Wang? In the age of Atari, his company made excellent word processors, an intermediary life form between typewriter and personal computer. Few doubt his visionary caliber, but the changes he inspired ultimately left his company trailing competitors.

That's not to say that major innovations are impermanent, only that the opportunies they create are unpredictable. In fact, innovation's greatest impact is sometimes felt only on the other side of the peak, when a marketable technology loses its shine and becomes part of the landscape.

Here's my favorite example. In 1980, Roland released a lineup of novel synthesizers designed to help traditional musicians in need of automated accompaniment. The TR-606 drum machine and TB-303 bass guitar synth were intended to be used as cheap, portable substitutes for acoustic performers. They were not a hit. Their cold, technical sounds must have sounded absurdly fake to guitarists and singers. Another new technology, digital sampling, offered more realistic results.

After Roland stopped making them, however, these gadgets were picked up years later by a new generation of artists. They unlocked the latent creative possibilities in something marketed for use in private, and the result was an explosion in popularity for electronic music. A 303 in good nick can now fetch $1500 or more at auction. Aficionados argue over the technical accuracy of handmade replicas. It's become culture, a slow-burning thread now woven into every synthesizer and software package capable of emulating it.

There are some impediments nowadays to the creative reuse of commercially-expired technology. Digital rights-management and the attendant legal restrictions make it harder to experiment with other people's ideas. Manufacturers often have their own ideas about what you should create with what they have created. And what they want to create more than anything else is a predictable marketplace for their own work.

But history shows that they can't predict much of anything, in the long run, and hackers will find a way to give anything a second life. And by the time it matters, the lock-keepers won't even notice the new old thing changing the world around them--even if they invented it.