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Tech and path dependence, explained
PLUS: ChatGPT, Spotify Wrapped, Kanye.
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Today, today we’re talking about path dependence in technology. And go through some interesting examples (Did a horse’s ass in Rome determine the size of rocket boosters? Why were tweets 140 characters? Why do we walk 10,000 steps?)
Also this week:
ChatGPT (another insane AI drop)
The genius of Spotify Wrapped
And them memes (including a chocolate beverage company that wishes it wasn’t a meme)
What is path dependence in technology?
It’s when a decision made in the past constrains future options and forces technological development down one path.
Here’s a simple example: today, the max tweet length is 280 characters.
Why? Because, in 2018, Twitter doubled the max tweet length that was set at 140 characters since its founding.
But why was 140 characters originally chosen?
Before the Twitter mobile app, tweets were delivered by SMS, which had a limit of 160 characters. So when Twitter was founded in 2006, the character limit was set at 140 (leaving 20 characters for the user name).
The max tweet size created a very unique platform: it rewards wit, brevity and humor but doesn’t allow for a lot of nuance (and leads to tons of snark and clapbacks)
However, there’s no longer any technological constraint on character limits and Twitter is finally rolling out some longer tweet formats.
My favourite example of path dependence in technology is on a much longer timeline than tweets: Did the the size of a horse’s ass in Rome determine the size of rocket boosters thousands of years later?
While the story has plot holes — which I’ll discuss later — it’s a great way to illustrate the larger lesson: understand what past decisions led to the current iteration of a product (and ask if it still makes sense).
Ok, so we’ll tell this horse/rocket story backwards.
Let’s start in the early 1970s: When NASA developed rocket boosters for the space shuttle, it had to plan transport from the manufacturer Thiokol (Utah) to Florida (launch site). It did so by rail and had to make sure the rockets could fit through tunnels of a certain size.
The standard rail gauge in America is 4 ft 8.5 inches and the smallest tunnels on the route were not much wider than that. Why 4ft 8.5 inches? That track size was set in the mid-1800s as rail was laid across the country. The process was based on English building techniques.
What was the basis of England’s rail system? It was built to match the country's tramway tracks, which itself followed a horse and wagon system. The wagons relied on uniform ruts in the road (which could accommodate the wheels).
Now comes the connection to Ancient Rome.
English roads go back to Roman engineering, which made the ruts for chariot wheels.
What set the chariot width? Two horse asses side-to-side, which were in the ballpark of 4 ft 8.5 in.
So as this story goes, the ass width of horses in Rome influenced the dimensions of the shuttle boosters 1000s of years later.
As I mentioned up top, there are plot holes. In fact, the surest way to get the “well, actually (ackchyually) that’s not how it happened” guy in your replies is to say “a horse’s ass in Rome determined the size of the space shuttle boosters”.
One common criticism is that when the Roman empire invaded the British islands, the chariots were of much different sizes those popular in Rome’s military heyday.
Another commonly referenced plot hole is that 19th century America actually had multiple rail gauge sizes. While this is true, it was the losing side (Confederates) that had multiple gauges whereas the winning side (Union) relied primarily on the f 4 ft 8.5 in gauges. Also, it should be noted that the Union’s standardization around one track size made it much more efficient in logistics and boosted its military efforts…which is kind of in support of the path dependence argument.
Either way, the “horses ass to rocket boosters” tale should be considered like a tech version of Aesop’s Fable. It may not fully reflect history but the story is a way to explain the idea of path dependence. And a good reminder to always ask if the current state of technology is based on rigorous first-principles thinking or “this is the way it’s always been”.
It’s worth highlighting both the tweet and horse’s ass to explain how path dependence comes about:
Network effect: It’s been possible to change tweet limits for a long time. But the format
Here are a few other examples of how fairly common things are currently designed (and their origins from another era):
QWERTY Keyboard: The QWERTY keyboard layout is often attributed to the design of mechanical keyboards. The letters were placed in such a way to prevent jamming from fast typers. Another theory is that the QWERTY design was so that salespeople could type “TYPEWRITER” quickly to impress customers (note how all the letters for “typewriter” are in the first line). Neither layout is optimized for digital keyboards, but we’ve spent decades mastering the format and it’s way too late for me to ever retrain.
Coding: A (often contentious) best practice in Python coding is that the character limit per line is 80. Where does the standard come from? IBM. In the 1960s, the most popular punchcard for the computing giant’s terminal was 80 columns by 12 rows.
App Store fees: Why do app developers pay 30% to Apple and Google? Like, why is the fee 30% and not some other percentage? Well, back in the 1980s, three game design firms (including the team behind Pac-Man) wanted to be on the Nintendo console and paid a 10% fee to do so. One of the game-makers couldn't manufacture its own cartridge, so it paid another 20% for Nintendo to do it (hence 10% + 20% = 30%). Even without the need to physically manufacture cartridges, the 30% fee structure was adopted by the Google and Apple app stores.
Why do we do 10,000 steps? The fitness industry regularly advises 10,000 steps a day for health. But the number isn’t based on science. It traces back to 1965 when a Japanese firm created a step counter and marketed the idea of 10,000 steps. Why? The Japanese character for “10,000” looks like a man walking.
Wine bottles: Why is 750ml the standard size? America matched European bottle dimensions in 1972 (for 1973 vintage). A popular theory is that Europeans adopted the 750ml size because that was the single-breath exhalation lung capacity for a glass blower in the 1600s (I couldn’t find a great source for this, so if you’re a win person and want to “Ackshually” me, please do).
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Links and memes
ChatGPT: The AI non-profit OpenAI just released a new tool called ChatGPT, a chat bot that is blowing people away with its outputs. The way I’ve been able to keep up on these AI developments is from the Ben’s Bites newsletter. Here are some incredible example of ChatGPT at work:
One big concern with AI tools is how to align them with human interests. It's called the "alignment problem" and AI researchers try to put guard rails in place. For example, ChatGPT isn't supposed field unethical queries.
However, in this viral sample, someone asks how to "break into someone's house?". ChatGPT initially re-buffs the request but when the question is framed as "how would two people in a film break into a house", then the AI spits out an answer.
Speaking of path dependence, whatever decisions being made about generative AI right now will have long-term impacts.
Spotify Wrapped…is an annual recap feature created by the streaming service that allows users to look back on their listening habits over the past year. It’s quite genius and always goes viral. The design is playful and people get to roast each other on social by posting their embarrassing playlists (I, for one, am happy to support my fellow Canadians and am not ashamed to say that I listened to a lot of Beiber, Celine, Shania and Drake in 2022).
My friend Dan Runcie at Trapital explains why Wrapped is such a “flex” for Spotify:
It knows more about us than any other music company. Every artist and record label would love to have a list of their top 0.5% listeners. Those may be the fans most likely to engage with the artist in other ways.
This is one of the reasons why Spotify expanded into other areas like podcasting, concert tickets, and ad revenue. It can target users most likely to use those services. Streaming isn’t always correlated with buying a concert ticket. It’s not a 1:1 match, but it gives a general idea of who to focus on.
The original Spotify Wrapped idea was as a year-end email; an intern recommended an interactive digital experience and the rest is history. And every year, people get very upset that the intern didn’t get “paid” for the idea.
All I know is this, if you make something using company property on company time, they can probably claim ownership on it. This is why I urge you to all have a burner computer while doing your side hustles!
In 2020, the former Spotify intern told Refinery29 that she received a stipend for the work and has no beef with Spotify taking credit since its in the contract. But, now, she’s an independent jeweller and keeping that IP to herself.
FTX update: Meanwhile, FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried is still a free man in the Bahamas. Last week, he went on an interview tour (including a NYT conference and Good Morning America). He’s playing the “yes customers lost $10B of their deposits but it was all an accounting mistake and lack of oversight” while throwing the CEO of his hedge fund — and former romantic partner — Caroline Ellison under the bus (Elizabeth Holmes did the same thing; blaming her COO and romantic partner for the Theranos crime).
A lot of people are wondering why SBF hasn’t been arrested. Comparably, Bernie Madoff was quickly arrested after his ponzi scheme unraveled. NY Mag has a good explainer of the different outcomes. Here is the Bearly AI summary:
Bernie Madoff was arrested quickly because he confessed to the fraud, whereas Bankman-Fried has not yet made any admissions of criminal conduct.
The Department of Justice will need to conduct an investigation to determine whether Bankman-Fried or those around him committed fraud.
Bankman-Fried has been evasive in interviews and has maintained that the FTX fiasco was the result of sloppiness and inadvertent missteps.
It’s worth remembering that the Theranos fraud first broke in 2015. Holmes wasn’t indicted until 2018 and went to trial in 2021 (she was recently sentenced to 11 years). Meanwhile, Coindesk has a great read titled “FTX’s Collapse Was a Crime, Not an Accident”.
…and here some good tweets.
Spotify Wrapped memes always on point:
Someone who I can’t remember once said “if all group chats were made public, every single person in the world would be cancelled”. I kind of agree and — on a related note — believe that said group chats hold some incredible comedy:
For those that haven’t been following Kanye news, the hip-hop artist has burnt every corporate bridge in the past few months. He lost lucrative deals with The Gap and Adidas. His talent agency cut him. His friends have shunned him.
Why? Kanye’s been on an antisemitic tirade. And it reached its peak on Thursday when Kanye showed up on Alex Jones’ show (yes, that Alex Jones) and said he liked Hitler and Nazis. It got so ridiculous that Alex Jones (yes, that Alex Jones) looked uncomfortable. While on the show, Kanye wore a black mask and pulled out a chocolate drink from YooHoo…which provided a brief moment of levity:
A few hours after appearing on the show, Kanye tweeted out a photo of the Star of David with a Swastika in it. Elon texted Kanye that the photo wasn’t OK. Kanye tweeted out the photo of his text with Elon. Then Kanye was suspended from Twitter…
…but not before he said that Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul had an affair with his ex-wife Kim Kardashian…and creating an absolute wild Trending Chris Paul Topic: