Why some technologies fail, and others succeed

My second column for the New York Times Magazine went online today. It's about the history of technology and the forces that determine which tools end up in our everyday portfolio and which become fodder for alternate history sci-fi novels.

The key thing to remember: The technologies we use today aren't necessarily the best technologies that were available. We don't really make these decisions logically, based solely on what works best. It's more complicated than that. Technology is shaped sociocultural forces. And, in turn, it shapes them, as well. The best analogy I've come up with to summarize this: The history of technology isn't a straight line. It's more like a ball of snakes fucking. (Sadly, I couldn't figure out a good way to reword this analogy for publication in the Paper of Record.) One of my big examples is the history of the electric car:

There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Electric Vehicle Company was the largest carmaker in the United States. It was also the biggest owner of cars in the country. That’s because the E.V.C. opted to rent or lease its vehicles instead of selling them. You could pick up an E.V.C. car for a short trip or take it for a week or a month, but you couldn’t own it. The business model was based on the E.V.C.’s assumption that its customers didn’t have the know-how or facilities to maintain their own cars. This may have been true, but when a series of shady business dealings drove the New York-based company into bankruptcy, it took electric cars down with it. Investors, soured by their experience with the E.V.C., swore they’d never put money into the industry again, and in the lull in electric-car development that followed, gasoline-car companies improved their technology and made their vehicles cheaper. Over the next 20 years, Americans formed a new idea of what a car was. And from that point on, right up to today, it was hard to get them to try anything else.

“Part of what makes infrastructure is its invisibility,” Kirsch told me. “When we have to create infrastructure for ourselves — installing charging stations at our houses, for instance — we make the invisible visible. It becomes an overwhelming task, like having to remake the world. Most people just want a car.”

Read the rest at The New York Times Magazine

Historic image via Flickr user Alden Jewell


  1. “Breeding ball” seems to be the polite term. It has a nice ring to it too. “Breeding ball of boas”. “Screwing spheroid of snakes”?.

    1. “Snakes’ wedding” is the term commonly used by British sailors to describe a hopeless tangle of rope. I think American sailors use “rats’ nest” instead.

    2. “a ball of snakes fucking”

      I think Maggie Koerth-Baker just found the subject for her next submission.

  2. Most people aren’t concerned with underlying ideas, they see surfaces and react, and then rationalize their choices after the fact.

    Thus we end up with gasoline cars, union carpenters who vote Republican, climate change deniers, and Microsoft Outlook.

    And loud, aggressive people who insist that their decisions are objectively perfect, although they will constantly shift the claimed basis for those decisions repeatedly in response to argument.

    1. Don’t ignore the power of mental inertia either.  It takes more mental effort to change one’s beliefs, even in the light of new facts, than most are willing to make.

  3. There are other reasons for the failure of early EVs. One of them is that AC won the current wars- until the (later) invention of the rectifier, it was only easy to charge batteries at home if your home electricity supply was DC. This is probably why EVC leased its cars- their customers couldn’t charge them at home anyway.

    Another reason is the invention of the electric self-starter which made it physically possible for many women to drive gasoline-powered cars- it requires a lot of upper body strength to turn over a hand-cranked car engine, which is why early electrics were often marketed to women.

    1. Do you have any evidence that battery chargers were difficult to make in those days?  Or are you just speculating on the basis that you can’t think of a way to do it without silicon rectifiers?
      I can think of at least three ways of doing it without them and all of them would have been within the range of the technology available at the beginning of the 20th century.  Just in case no one can think of any the techniques I have in mind are AC motor to DC generator, electromechanical relay, and copper oxide rectifier.  A quick look through my library turned up instructions for making the first two and also a chemical rectifier. Here is a couple of pages from Everything Within published I think in 1938 showing a vibrating reed rectifier and a chemical rectifier http://t.co/JqpVYeZR, http://t.co/eGTowfsq.  There is nothing in the first two was unknown in 1900 and while the third wasn’t invented until 1927 its manufacture doesn’t require any techniques that were not available 50 years earlier.

      1. You have to ask? Both wars pivoted on oil and oil run cars, on rubber, on plastic. Electric submarines? Electric aircraft carriers? Electric fighter planes? None of these techs would have been advanced sufficiently without oil. Oil. petrol, gas are all transportable – electricity isn’t so much. So long lines of tanks…are unlikely  So Poland doesn’t get invaded. Russia doesn’t get invaded or can’t defend itself, take your pick. Africa – well, no one even goes into Africa since there’s no electricity and no way to charge cars. Ok, maybe someone goes in to protect themselves from a southern Med. attack. And in Vietnam, without blanket bombing, helicopter drop ins etc – the Americans are even more out of their depth and get slaughtered.

        Well, that’s what I can think of in about 5 mins of consideration. I’m sure there’s an entire second history waiting to be written. I should ask reddit..

  4. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones.

    Yes, but the vast majority of people want a car that can handle *all* the trips they need or want to make, not just the vast majority.  And few people can afford to buy and maintain multiple purpose-built cars for different trips.

    (Unless you’re, y’know, one of Mitt’s cohort.  And then you’d need to install a car elevator at the beach house, probably  It’s more expensive than you might think, this different-Cadillacs-for-different-purposes thing.)

    1. There’s more than one place you can get a car you can use for long trips you only make infrequently

    2.  Except that in the past, and when I say past I mean less than 50 years ago, we took long trips with large amounts of luggage. We might have used a car, a taxi for example, but then the luggage was portered onto a train or a boat and we didn’t have to worry about it any more.
      Our problem, if you like, is that we expect travel to be very cheap and when we go long distance we expect to have to find some mechanism to carry all our luggage – back packs, suitcases etc. We’re not prepared to pay the cost of perters to move our luggage for us and we don’t want to pay excess baggage fares at airports.
      So the end result is that you buy a car big enough for the largest amount of luggage you are likely to need to carry just once or twice a year.
      In reality, most families could get by with a tiny car, just big enough to get them around the local neighbourhood and in reality, they could do that just as well by bike for 9 months of the year. So why do we own cars at all?

    3. Yes, but the vast majority of people want a car that can handle *all* the trips they need or want to make, not just the vast majority.

      I seriously doubt that the “vast majority of people” has even seriously thought about this.  But more importantly, why would the vast majority want something that makes no economic sense?  Even assuming you’re right about this it just indicates that Maggie’s right that economics doesn’t determine which technologies are adopted.

    4. Some people would call into Car Talk and say how they want a recommendation for, say, some big pickup truck.  The guys would ask what they need it for and they’d say “Oh, maybe once per year.”  Then after thinking about how they’d be driving a gas guzzler (plus the initial higher cost) the rest of the time for tasks a smaller vehicle could easily fill they realize it makes more sense to rent something for those once a year trips.

      1. I see a fair number of tiny, ancient people here (dangerously) driving monster pick-ups. Presumably it’s a psychological Ripley’s Loader compensatory effect for feeling vulnerable. They clearly would be unable to close the tailgate without help if it were to open by accident.

  5. I disagree with the entire premise of this article.  EVs have some advantages, but they are outweighed by the disadvantages and that’s why people chose gasoline instead.   It wasn’t some sort of investor conspiracy, it was that EVs were short ranged and had long recharge times, meaning they were the prime vehicle for leaving you stranded if you tried to do one too many errands at once.  Also, if you can only afford one car (which was pretty much everybody looking to buy a car in the early 20th century), would you take the one that is only useful for short trips in town, or the one that does everything and is cheaper? 

    If the technology were sound, then the investor shenanigans wouldn’t have mattered, even if one company went under another would spring up to take its place.  The problem was that the underlying concept was inherently flawed and the companies failed on their own merits in addition to whatever backroom deals were going on.

    Even today we’re trying to figure out how to economically solve the quick-recharge problem, and not for lack of trying.  

    1.  This is totally the problem.  I think you’d have to get the recharge time down to something like 5 minutes for 50 miles of range.  50 miles covers most single purpose errand-running or commuting, and I’d be willing to wait a bit longer if I was eating lunch in the middle of a big trip.

      If it’s slower than that, it’s a really hard sell.  If the car had hundreds of miles of range and I had an expectation that I could plug it in pretty much anywhere I parked, that’s a mitigating factor, but the infrastructure is a chicken and egg problem.

    2. Perhaps a sharing scheme that would pick up and drop off electric vehicles at stands around town much like city bicycles are in Europe? I met a mathematician from Braunschweig (or Göttingen? forgetting is my superpower) on a train who said she was working on optimizing the math for making sure those parking stands for rental bikes are neither too full nor too empty.

      1.  Or if people desperately want to own their own cars, “filling stations” where you swap out a depleted battery for a full one (and your fee is based on the disparity in charge between the two batteries)?

    3. Good point.. EV’s are somewhat of a one trick pony and from what I see everywhere it’s huge selling point is that it’s green….  and that in itself is really open for debate…  

      The versatility of the combustion engine is its biggest selling point over the EV… your not going to haul logs out of the woods, pull a boat, or take road trips with your family with all the stuff in tow.

      I just can’t see and EV F150 with the same capability anytime soon…    

  6. More often than not the technically best technology doesn’t get chosen due to marketing decisions, politic manoeuvres at standards boards, or legal challenges from what they’re replacing.

    BetaMax was far better than VHS but SONY make boneheaded decisions about licensing it and so VHS conquered.  Compare this to the deals cut by the inventors of cartridge audio tape where the first in became the standard.

    The crummy “shouting” Ethernet standard now rules in LANs because the main guy behind it had iron pants and a small bladder so he prevailed at the standards board meetings where people sit around and try and write the standards so that only their proprietary solution meets the standards.

    The best audio cartridge technology was the MiniDisc.  However it got stuck in a legal pissing match with DAT tapes and the first of the wars from Big Content.  By the time that that was all sorted out the age of cartridge technologies was over and no one was going to transfer any of their libraries to it.

    1. Really? Consumer Reports said there was no difference with the initial versions, and vhs had lower quality 4 and 6 hour modes, win for vhs.

      MiniDisk had no digital out, as I recall, only analog (I recall some tech luminary bitching about that).

      You are saying that a token passing scheme (token ring or fiberchannel etc) rather than collision detection should have won? Well, we would be bitching about it now, as with switched networks, it would be pointless overhead. And IBM had real problems with the early token ring chipsets.

  7. The article expects you to take it on faith that mere capriciousness and some minor issues caused us to zig towards one technology instead of zag towards another, but doesn’t actually provide any evidence for the assertion. Wikipedia indicates that the EVC had a scandal based on the poor performance of it’s cars.

    The cars were mostly luxury toys or professional equipment until 1908, when Fords Model T made it an item the middle-class could afford.

  8. Whatever the reason for electric cars not catching on a hundred years ago, it is pure insanity that keeps them from being used in today’s dense cities. Everybody has electricity at home to charge them with, and the vast majority of people seldom make trips long enough to be a problem.

    In Los Angeles, we just had the second shutdown of the major freeway through town for construction purposes. Monitoring showed an immediate huge reduction in air pollution during these shutdowns. Which proves that by not organizing and deploying electric vehicles we are maintaining the smog that is the bane of existence here. And this in a place with more sunshine (= free electricity!) than almost anywhere in the world. We could not only get rid of the smog, but give the finger to any number of oil sheikhs and oligarchs at the same time.

    1. Or you LAers could use your subway more. Seriously, whenever I’m in LA I’m stunned on how *empty* the subway cars are — I’ve never had a problem getting a seat whereas in most cities the subways are standing-room only.

      1. The subways here are more crowded than the immense SUV’s carrying a single housewife which you see constantly on the streets!

    2. You seem to assume our power grid could easily absorb a sudden massive upswing in demand for electricity.  Where do you think that power is going to come from?  Solar power is expensive to implement and neither it nor wind power are consistently reliable.  In some locations it is in ample supply at certain times…but as one of my friends who works for a power company points out, delivering that energy is a difficult proposition and we can’t store it for any length of time (which is why blackouts happen).

      There are real and valid reasons for why we haven’t just immediately replaced all cars with electric vehicles.  Can they be overcome?  I hope so.  But to imply that it’s just a lack of foresight or will that prevents their adoption ignores a lot of realities, IMHO.

      1. Solar power is extremely reliable in Los Angeles, and the expense is dropping daily. In fact, if a major effort were made to replace gasoline with solar panels, the economy of size would save money even with today’s technology. And how about saving a trillion dollars by not having to go to war over oil? And how about becoming the biggest manufacturer of solar energy products in the world? I could go on and on, the benefits are too huge to ignore.

  9. I think once we get charging down to 6 hours using 120vac, we will have more demand for electric cars.  Most people don’t want to wait 16 hours for their car to charge and it is difficult to find 240v.  Who has the special charging stations (paddle/multi-prong) out in the county? …or people that rent?

  10. “The history of technology isn’t a straight line. It’s more like a ball of snakes fucking. (Sadly, I couldn’t figure out a good way to reword this analogy for publication in the Paper of Record.)”
    Never apologize for GENIUS.

  11. One could argue that the gasoline powered car led to urban sprawl. Low urban density leads to more people needing cars, then needing somewhere to park them when they go shopping, leading to shopping malls and supermarkets with convenient parking, leading to more sprawl, leading to…

    Certainly in the more sprawling suburban cities in the US it would be impractical to own an electric car–yes, perhaps you can get by with an electric car for your commute but for longer trips, it’s not like there’s a modern rail system you could use instead. You can fly, but then you probably need a car at the other end and for trips less than 2 hours it doesn’t make sense. Public transportation works best at connecting dense areas together, not serving sprawling low density.

    The whole system is geared toward gasoline car ownership–not through any conspiracy but through, more or less, giving people what they want.

    I’m very curious what America would look like without such widespread car ownership. More medium-density small towns, perhaps? Surely less suburbia.

    I feel like a lot of Americans have a knee-jerk reaction to talk of electric vehicles or public transportation, not on their merits or lack thereof, but because they are an ill match to how the country is actually configured. As the article says, hybrids are an inevitable and unavoidable stepping-stone on the path to any kind of change.

  12. Offhand comment, two of my Great grand fathers bought Model T’s one in Georgia and the other down the central coast of California.  An electric car wouldn’t have made any sense because they didn’t have electricity.

  13. Actually, one of the main reasons that electric cars didn’t catch on is because they were marketed to women, before cars got to be a guy thing – then gas cars (loud and dirty) were marketed to men – and the rest is, unfortunately, history.

    1. Loud, dirty, and needed to be hand cranked into action. Can’t have those dainty flowers do that now can we?

  14. One of the early EV pioneers had the idea of removable batteries that you exchange at service stations (I read about it in Edwin Black’s book Internal Combustion) So, instead of waiting for a charge, you slide out the low ones, and slide in the charged ones. It might sound cumbersome, but who knows. It’s not hard to visualize a system that would quickly accomplish that task, probably faster than a fill-up.

    1. At that time, it is likely said service station would have dedicated staff to do the job for you, just like there used to actually be people present that would fill your tank (and make sure to collect payment, natch).

  15. The failure of an American company totally explains why electric cars didn’t succeed elsewhere. I’m convinced.

    In all seriousness: I bet it was the ease of fuel transportation and energy densitiy that was the reason. 

    Gasoline can be transported in cans and needs a pump, it at all.    Most of the industrialized countries were not on the electric grid, except for the cities. And yes, even though people make only short trips most of the time, a car was a serious investment – it *had* to be able to go places.

    Last, not least: Electrics are more silent and don’t smell as bad, but I bet the difference isn’t that big in husting cities where there are still shoed horses pulling carriages and which are getting warmed by burning coal. Lots and lots of coal.

    1. My understanding is that early gasoline was sold in oversized tin cans off the shelf. And usually the tank was located such that you could get away with just a funnel and a bit of lifting.

  16. “Part of what makes infrastructure is its invisibility”

    This may well be the most interesting part, as it can be an eye opener.

  17. I’ve worked in high tech for many years. It’s fascinating to see what technology becomes widely adopted and what the market ignores. I am a technical writer, so I tend to straddle that divide between the techies and the marketing people. There is a real lack of trust of marketing by the engineers and software developers. Many companies just allow the engineers and developers to make all the marketing decisions to avoid the conflict. The larger and more developed ones recognize the need for these people to work together and try to force some kind of cooperation into the process. One company I worked at had a weekly engineering team meeting, and every now and then the sales people would come in and tell us about what was going on in sales. It was hilarious to watch – these people spoke a completely different language and the techies just sat and scratched their heads trying to understand what the heck the sales folk were talking about. Then they ignored them. At another company, there was a lead engineer and a lead marketing project director for each new project. Again, these people worked together like oil and water. The marketing people were inevitably these loud ladies in bright red suits who hadn’t a clue how the technology worked but were interested in making catchy jingles – I remember sitting in on one meeting where the lead marketing director was explaining a product I was working on and she didn’t understand even the most basic features of the product. The engineers (almost all men) were so knee deep in protocols and signal processing they thought the marketing people were like annoying flies. Apple’s true success lies in the fact that they do seem more than anyone else to incorporate marketing into the product design process. But most high tech companies will let engineering run the show because the top executives value the technology above its usefulness or usability, and these tech people will cram a million features into a product until it become so overwhelming to use that people pass it over for the products that they find easier to attempt to understand.

  18. You have to take into consideration the power factor, gasoline motors produce more power, you make the assumption that everything revolves around city drivers and people who just make “trips” in their vehicles to pick things up.  

    There are many many more uses for vehicles than just getting groceries that require a powerful, versatile engine that a combustion engine provides.  Farm vehicles, Construction Vehicles, military vehicles, the list goes on and on.

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