In 2007, right before the first iPhone launched, I asked Steve Jobs the obvious question: The design of the iPhone was based on discarding every physical interface element except for a touchscreen. Would users be willing to give up the then-dominant physical keypads for a soft keyboard?
His answer was brusque: “They’ll learn.”
Steve turned out to be right. Today, touchscreens are ubiquitous and seem normal, and other interfaces are emerging. An entire generation is now coming of age with a completely different tactile relationship to information, validating all over again Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “the medium is the message”.
A great deal of product development is based on the assumption that products must adapt to unchanging human needs or risk being rejected. Yet, time and again, people adapt in unpredictable ways to get the most out of new tech. Creative people tinker to figure out the most interesting applications, others build on those, and entire industries are reshaped.
People change, then forget that they changed, and act as though they always behaved a certain way and could never change again. Because of this, unexpected changes in human behavior are often dismissed as regressive rather than as potentially intelligent adaptations.
But change happens anyway. “Software is eating the world” is the most recent historic transformation of this sort.
In 2014, a few of us invited Venkatesh Rao to spend the year at Andreessen Horowitz as a consultant to explore the nature of such historic tech transformations. In particular, we set out to answer the question: Between both the breathless and despairing extremes of viewing the future, could an intellectually rigorous case be made for pragmatic optimism?
As this set of essays argues — many of them inspired by a series of intensive conversations Venkat and I had — there is indeed such a case, and it follows naturally from the basic premise that people can and do change. To “break smart” is to adapt intelligently to new technological possibilities.
With his technological background, satirical eye, and gift for deep and different takes (as anyone who follows his Ribbonfarm blog knows!), there is perhaps nobody better suited than Venkat for telling a story of the future as it breaks smart from the past.
Whether you’re a high school kid figuring out a career or a CEO attempting to navigate the new economy, Breaking Smart should be on your go-to list of resources for thinking about the future, even as you are busy trying to shape it.
— Marc Andreessen