Phases of Technology: Magic, Disruption, and Harmony

The most important technologies are eventually as useful and unassuming as a chair: useful because you can’t live without interacting with it, unassuming because it seamlessly integrates with your life. You start to forget who created the technology. You don’t notice it much, you don’t even think of it as technology, but it significantly improves your life.

Technologies go through three phases: magic, disruption, and harmony.

In the first phase, the technology is indistinguishable from magic. You are transported to a new world and can’t believe that this is possible. It’s what people experienced in the early 1900s when they flew in a plane for the first time. It’s what I experienced when I first used GPT3.

The second phase, disruption, involves the re-orientation of society around this technology. The technology clearly works, many people understand that it works, and now it’s being deployed and distributed.

Over the past century, we have re-oriented our society around the car. We have built roads, bridges, highways, and parking garages. We have created traffic laws, seatbelt laws, and drunk driving laws. We have set up gas stations and mechanic shops. Cities and urban design are planned around the car. The technology is noticed and consumes people’s attention. Just like cars, computing, the internet, and smartphones are also in the disruptive phase.

The third phase, harmony, is when the technology transcends from disruption to something more. It is abundant, cheap, and integrated into our lives in a way that is seamless — we don’t think about it but we probably can’t live without it. The necessary infrastructure around the technology is built. The structure of the world catches up to the disruption, which allows the technology to settle down and find its footing. Electricity is at the stage of harmony. We switch on our lights and fans, heat food in a microwave, and charge our phones without thinking of the cheap and abundant electricity that powers them.

The measles vaccine is in the harmony phase — it is essentially free, most people in the world take it, and measles-related deaths have significantly reduced. Many people can’t live without insulin but it is prohibitively expensive so it is not in the harmony phase.

When a technology is in harmony, its creators become anonymous; people gradually start to forget the original founding stories. While timelines can vary widely, it typically takes at least a few hundred years to transition from magic to harmony. The original inventors will likely not live to see their technology reach harmony.

The way a technology moves from magic to disruption to harmony is through the institutions built around it. The iPhone moved from magic to disruption when the App Store allowed third party developers to build applications that broadened the iPhone’s use case. Electricity moved from disruption to harmony because of regulators, property developers, urban planners, engineers, and capital markets that facilitated widespread adoption. True abundance — and therefore harmony — is only possible when these institutions are robust and complete. Cars are still in the disruptive phase despite being present everywhere because they cost tens of thousands of dollars and are disruptive to our lives.

When a technology is fully adopted, it disappears.

Benedict Evans

The word frequencies in the Google Books corpus go down as the technology is adopted.

Source: Gaby Goldberg’s post

The goal of building technology is to reach harmony. Like fire, agriculture, mathematics, paper, or money, good technologies stop seeming like technologies after some time. They become as much a part of our nature as the trees and mountains that surround us.

The world is a museum of passion projects.

John Collison

Additional Notes

Many like Gartner and Perez have written about technology cycles but they are typically focused on the perspective of investors rather than people using the technology. For example, LLMs currently feel like magic to us but in Gartner’s hype cycle, they would be characterized as the peak of inflated expectations. Also, they have a shorter time horizon — Gartner has a 5-20 year time horizon and Perez has a 50-75 year time horizon. My time horizon is at least a few hundred years. While Perez does talk about the ‘disruption’ stage where the technology is being deployed, she does not talk enough about ‘harmony’, which could happen many centuries after the technology was invented.

I received many insightful ideas from people I shared initial drafts with. They deserve a post of their own, but I included some of them below.

Adam Rathgaber shared thoughts on the measles vaccine vs. insulin, and the institutions required for technologies like electricity to move from disruption to harmony. He also shared that another way to distinguish these three phases is the cost of capital and type of investor in each phase. During the ‘magic’ phase, technology is often funded by research institutions and venture capital who are looking for a 100x return. In the ‘disruptive’ phase, investment typically comes from public market investors aiming for returns in the range of 15-20%, as seen with companies like Google, Tesla, and Visa. In the ‘harmony’ phase, the expected return is a few hundred basis points above the risk-free rate, e.g. power, real estate, food, and mining.

Sina Habibian said, “There is an inter-dependence between technologies as they mature through these stages. E.g. GPT3 is only possible because multiple technologies before it have gone through the disruption and to some extent even the harmony phase. Or the internet as a corpus of text being a lens on humanity’s thoughts, the proliferation of GPUs thanks to gaming and crypto (and earlier AI deployment in big tech companies), etc. In some ways, one could look at this as the advance of civilization. The technological frontier moves forward by incorporating/expanding on the previous frontier.”

Gaby Goldberg told me how word frequencies in the Google Books corpus actually go down when the technology is fully adopted, e.g. “railroad” or “software”. She covers it in her piece, citing Benedict Evans.

Thanks to Michael Bateman, Shwetha Hariharan, Daniel Schlabach, Lakshman Sankar, and Ashley Belfort for reading early drafts.