What’s so high about high technology?

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Information technology has been called high technology for years in a reverential way. Lots of smart things have happened in the computing field over the past three decades. Computers have become our constant companions as smartphones, netbooks and laptops.

Internet access is now a necessity rather than the luxury it was ten years ago.

However most of the major innovations that facilitated these changes come from the late 1960s and 1970s. Operating systems and computing paradigms owe a lot to Doug Engelbart, SRI, Xerox PARC, Bell Labs work on UNIX and the DARPA investments in packet networks. With the exception of MapReduce and Hadoop facilitating cloud computing for the likes of Google and Yahoo! pretty much everything else were systematic iterative improvements or if you want to be less charitable window dressing on top of these innovations.

So why is IT treated so reverently as being a more innovative, more worthy technology: high technology? The ironic thing is that some of the deepest areas of research are going into surprising low-tech areas. Nano-technology into sun screen, or materials science innovations in the food and consumer packaged goods industries. A great example of this is Procter & Gamble.

Now I work for a PR agency so what would I really know about innovation? Prior to working in PR, I helped develop four commercially successful products that were subsequently patented. One of which was for a plastic that laminated toughened glass sheets together making this glass sandwich bulletproof. It frequently saved lives, occasionally when it failed we were sent samples of the glass back for us to find out what went wrong.

Contrast this with if your computer fails, you can’t get into your email account or Twitter goes down. Ok, that’s a bit trivial: computing also keeps us alive with it allowing a mass-market audience for anti-lock brakes and defibrillators.

That doesn’t take us away from the fact that we accept a lower standard of relability in IT. Thinking about other technologies, we turn on a tap and expect clean water under an appropriate pressure come out, or switch on lamp and expect the darkness to disappear immediately. Contrast this with the reliability we accept from computers: rebooting after a freeze, the blue screen of death or the experience of the Thai government minister held hostage in his bullet-proof limousine by computer failure.

IT is important, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves that innovation is purely about the computer. If you have an open and enquiring mind it can be found everywhere from potato chips and other consumer-packaged goods to heavy industrial plant. A great example of this is the occasional ‘What’s Inside’ section that Wired Magazine does each month. After reading about what goes into simple household times like contact lens solution even a crass simpleton should be able to start and appreciate the innovation all around us.