You can transform between technology constraints, regulatory constraints, and cultural constraints

Note to the reader - this is one of those notes where I’m still trying to clarify this idea over time and would deeply appreciate feedback on how to make this more clear, or aspects that I’m overlooking

We tend to muddle the three sorts of constraints especially when we talk about why a technology succeeds or fails. Yes, the technology wasn’t good enough but that insufficiency could be that it simply wasn’t good enough to accomplish the task directly (like a steam engine before it was efficient enough to move itself) or it could be that it wasn’t good enough to pass cultural or regulatory review. The reality is always some mixture of the three.

Nuclear power is a great example. The standard answer for “why don’t we have more nuclear power?” is that the first generations of nuclear power aren’t safe enough (and conversely that more sophisticated nuclear power technologies are the solution.) In effect, we have piled everything into technical constraints that need to be relaxed before nuclear is a thing. One could imagine instead relaxing regulatory constraints (many many government checkboxes) or cultural constraints (the imho irrational fear of nuclear power.)

Perhaps this is a different way of pointing out that some technical requirements are imposed either implicitly or explicitly by people who are not going to use the technology. Regulatory constraints are explicit requirements imposed by not-users and cultural constraints are implicit requirements imposed by not-users. An explicit not-user constraint is straightforward and an implicit not-user constraint is basically peer pressure: “if I use this, will other people mock or condemn me?”

There are many stories of technologies succeeding not through pure technological prowess, but because they found a niche or a regulatory loophole where a lower level of technological sophistication was embraced or at least allowed. In fact, many of the great “technological” battles of history have been over culture and regulation - AC vs DC, Nuclear, internal combustion vs steam engines (see Pieces of the Action), etc.

It might be very hard, but if regulatory constraints make a process slow it is possible (though maybe extremely hard) to create a technology that does the process completely differently so that it avoids the regulation.

If AR ‘doesn’t work’ because of cultural stigma against wearing a big clunky thing on your face, one way to address that is to do the technical work to make it small and beautiful but another way is to find a niche where that bulk is less culturally relevant.


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