Part one – What’s the pain?
In a recent meeting with a venture-capital firm, as part of our ongoing endeavor to secure funding for the continued development of IncrediCube, we were asked a strange question that I never encountered before – “what’s the pain?” As I did not suffer any pain at the time, I was perplexed as to the meaning of this odd inquiry. I mean, we did not come to pitch an idea for a new drug or medical procedure. We are developing a new concept for web publishing and sharing of information. What sort of pain can we possibly be asked to mitigate? The question haunted me for days afterward, and I was obliged to ponder about its meaning.
So, what does it mean “what is the pain?” in the context of innovation and capital? On the face of it, it seems to simply mean “What is it good for?” or “what needs are addressed?” Such “positive” questions make sense: “good” is the basis for the term “goods” for describing movable property or commodities that address real and tangible “needs”. But how does “pain” come into play here? Why substitute the wholly positive term “good” for the definitively negative term “pain”? Why imply that “pain” is an indication for “needs”? Well, the answer lies in the shifting definition of “needs”.
Save in a few isolated periods of time (that will be discussed later), prior to the explosion of the information society in the west merely a few decades ago, innovative theoretical and technological advances were evaluated based on one primary consideration – their usefulness. The most successful and enduring innovations addressed the various facets of the basic needs of life – feeding, finding shelter and security, working, and interacting. Others were mostly perceived as mere curiosities, and sometimes as heretical abominations.
Take that greatest Roman invention – concrete. What’s it good for? It’s good for building anything anywhere cheaper and stronger. This simple answer is accurate and makes sense in every culture and in every language on the face of the planet now as it did then. Now let’s leap in time to a modernist invention – the telephone. What’s it good for? It is good for allowing people to speak with one another beyond the shouting distance. This concept can be explained just as easily to a sophisticated scientist in MIT and to a goat herder in Yemen. It could have been invented at any time in history, and be just as easy to understand. In other words, until quite recently, all important innovations, the ones that defined civilizations and changed our lives, are simple to understand, address basic human needs, are timeless, and universal.
Now let’s ask ourselves “what is a computer good for?” well, it’s good for processing large amounts of information. No wait, it’s a sophisticated typewriter really. No, it’s really a sophisticated calculator. No, it’s a sort of television. Hey, you can also play games with it. No, wait, it’s good for using the internet. What’s the internet good for? Well, it’s good for connecting computers together. Really, what is a computer good for again? Well, with the internet it is good for connecting people. Like a telephone? No, like Facebook . . . Yeah, right, try explaining this to a Yemeni goat herder. In other words, since the implosion of the western entertainment seeking computer-based economies, the most prominent innovations have been extremely difficult to understand, address chimerical needs, are transient, and culture specific.
Nonetheless, it would be idiotic to claim that the entire IT advances of the past few decades have been useless since a goat herder, and even most ordinary contemporary people, are ill-equipped to fully understand the concept of a computer, the internet, blogging, bookmarking, or social networking. There is no doubt that the reasons so many people, all over the world, use these technologies, often without pondering what they are really good for, implies that they address real needs. But what needs are those?
This issue and others will be discussed in the next part of this essay.
Dr. Eyal Engelhardt Ari