Polished vs. Pliable

Some thoughts about the appearance of progress (especially in technology) sometimes as discrete quantized jumps and sometimes as continuous trends.

Perhaps the difference between discrete and continuous technology depends on how much of the tinkering occurs ‘in house’ or ‘in the lab’ vs. in the public eye. Computer and software development looks so continuous because those are some of the first places where all the work is out in the open – both through open source projects, fast iteration of product versions (how often does adobe ask you to update its software?), and the division of tasks between many different companies publicly interfacing with each other.

In the last case, consider that (most of the time) different companies make various hardware components (chips, motherboards, fans, etc.) and these companies are in turn separate from the software companies. Although this is the case in other areas as well, the separation is much more apparent in computing. Although it might just be the circles I run in, nobody that I’m aware of can rattle off different graphite, eraser, and pencil-wood manufacturers, while many people know about Raytheon, NVidia, Microsoft, and Apple.

In other times and tech areas, the same amount of tinkering – trying, failing, retrying, failing, learning, head-slamming, and finally getting to a final product – does occur, but it goes on in a much less visible circle – sometimes even explicitly secret because of competitors or an advantage to make it look like a big discrete change.

This has both advantages and disadvantages.  Dealing with open source software can be incredibly annoying and most people like polished things. On the other hand, it can be paralyzing to wait until a product or idea is ‘good enough’ before releasing it to the world. Like almost anything (I’m finding) it’s a pendulum with an unknown equilibrium point. Or maybe there’s no equilibrium point at all – it’s more of an equilibrium blob varying on a case-by-case basis with hundreds of factors all weighing in.  Fun stuff.

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