Trends and breakthroughs

Even though I know almost nothing about it, I’m fascinated by sociology and human anthropology. Most of what I find intriguing about those fields is the study of how ideas spread. I assume ideas spread the same way now as they ever have, so if we can understand how ideas spread in the past we should be able to make more intelligent predictions about how they’re spreading now. One thing that’s become pretty clear to me is that “breakthroughs” (cultural, scientific, technological, and otherwise) have almost never happened in a vacuum. So if someone wants to be involved in a breakthrough, they either need to be part of a movement or they need to create one.

That seems incongruent with the oft-repeated motivational slogans about “marching to the beat of your own drummer” and “thinking outside the box”. I can’t really speak to those slogans, but perhaps there’s an interpretation of them that is still congruent with the idea of working within a “movement”. Movements are valuable because they allow ideas to build off each other. It seems logical to think that finding truly novel insights in a space where many smart people are already working would require approaching them a completely different way–even if you’re still working on the same “boring” problem as everyone else.

So it seems like there are two somewhat conflicting philosophies that nurture “breakthrough” work:

  1. Be part of (or create) a “movement”.
  2. Approach the problem space in a unique way.

(1) is why it’s important to understand trends. (2) is why it’s important never to follow them blindly.

The Augmented Self

Two of the technology trends that I find particularly interesting these days are the “internet of things” and the “quantified self”. The internet of things (IOT) represents the advent of internet-connected devices that aren’t intended for personal computing–for example, consider a home alarm system that can be controlled and monitored over the internet. Quantified self represents a movement toward gathering data about ourselves–for example, regular and automated heart rate and blood pressure monitoring for pre-emptive health warnings.

(By the way, a company that’s doing both of those things well is Jawbone. They started out as the guys that made those pretentious Bluetooth headsets, but they’ve been steadily expanding their offerings. They’re still “establishing their beachhead”, so-to-speak, but I think they’re one of the most well-positioned companies for the impending realization of these two trends.)

The combination of IOT with the quantified self is especially interesting to me. It’s already possible to buy bathroom scales that track your weight over time; imagine how that idea could be extrapolated through every aspect of daily life. I would love, for example, to have a detailed record of what I read and when, or my trends for mealtimes throughout the year. The flip side, of course, is that I don’t want anyone else to have control over that data (especially not in a way that could be correlated with other information about me). I want a way to analyze information about myself without being completely exposed to some big corporation somewhere.

I don’t really know what that’s going to look like yet. One thing that I’m trying for myself is just to build personal tools for all the pieces I want to see. I have thousands of personal notes between services like Workflowy, Evernote, github, and on my local hard drives that I’m going to try consolidating into a single searchable database. I’ll set up my own contact management system, too. It won’t really be “quantified self” just yet, but it will lay the groundwork for a central place where I can start collecting quantified data once the tools become available. In the meantime it will at least form a sort of “augmented self”–a single place for me to search through and try to organize any thoughts I’ve ever typed.


Software developer, book writer, beer brewer :)

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