genomics, nanotechnology, The Economist and Red Herring’s view

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The locus of innovation
Have information technology and communications become boring?
by Jason Pontin
September 27, 2002

The Economist said it, and therefore it must be true. In the latest Technology Quarterly, published in the September 21 issue of the news magazine, the editors write, “A glance at where, and for what, patents are now being granted, suggests that innovation has begun to move away from telecoms, computing, and ecommerce towards fresher pastures–especially in genomics and nanotechnology.”

Do we really believe this? Surely the smarmy British magazine has an answerable point when it notes, “The excessive exuberance during the run-up to the millennium has saddled the IT industry worldwide with $750 billion of debt and some $250 billion of overcapacity. That is an awfully big hangover to overcome.”

Nor have I forgotten that last week I essentially agreed with Charles Fitzgerald, Microsoft’s chief propagandist, when he said that, so far as software was concerned, “I am a believer in the mundane future.”

Finally, both as a future patient of drug and genetic therapies and as someone interested in new technology, I am excited by the convergence of the life sciences, computing, and nanotechnology. Imagine a future where quantum dots in your body detect a cellular catastrophe like an epileptic stroke or heart attack, and chips in your blood stream deliver a drug perfectly designed to stop that catastrophe before it can seriously harm your organism. All without serious side effects. Sound far-fetched? Science-fictional? It’s only years away; it’s in clinical trials now.

But I have been writing about information technology for almost a decade, and I am equally certain of one other thing: IT is as cyclical as a manic depressive’s moods. While this “bottom” exceeds in scale and seriousness anything in the history of computing, information technologists always seem to insist that their industry has become a boring, commodities-based sector just before a kid in some university dorm dreams up something that fundamentally changes the way businesses work and ordinary folks conduct their lives.

Alas, at the moment we don’t know what this something will be. Cringely’s Law says that in the short term things change much less than we expect, but that we have absolutely no idea what will happen in the long term. Therefore I believe this: biotechnology and nanotechnology will be the locus of innovation and wealth-creation in the immediate future. I recognize that certain structural difficulties in IT and telecom must be addressed before any renaissance can occur–specifically, all that debt and excess capacity must be reduced, and the “last mile” must be conquered and broadband Internet access brought to every American home at an affordable price.

But I will not write off IT quite yet. While the immediate future may be mundane, I am certain that further in the future we will have another computing revolution that will excite investors, consumers, and businesses as much as personal computers and the Internet once excited them. I think I even know what that revolution will be: an “always on,” distributed, intelligent network.

It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur. Capital is cheap, there are few distractions, and educated technical and professional labor is available. Go get ’em, tigers.

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Posted in Technology Review.

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