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My lab:

As a kid in school, I once saw a diagram of the succession of horse-drawn carriages, early car-carriages and then cars. I wasn't able to find a good illustration, so I picked some examples I found and made my own sequence:


As a kid, with 20/20 hindsight, I wondered: what was so difficult in making a car look like a car and not like a horse carriage where the horse was missing? While looking for the diagram today, I even found a steam traction engine from the same year Benz built his first car, 1886, which looked much more like a car (with, e.g., steering wheel and all) than any of the actual 'cars' until Ford's Model T only 22 years later. The concept of a steering wheel was not novel, even the very carriage-looking electric car from 1897 (under the Benz Coupé from the same year) appears to have one. And yet, most cars looked like carriages without horses for another eleven years, when all of a sudden, Ford built something that actually looked like a car for the first time.

Why, despite technological role models from other areas, were people trying to make cars look like the familiar carriage for twenty years? Given the success of the Model T, one would assume it wasn't the skepticism of the buyer. It probably wasn't any technological problem, as the steam engine shows. Or was the market just not ripe enough until 1908? Not being a historian, I'm not sure how trivial it is to answer these questions, but the sequence shows that humans tend to hang on to dysfunctional design and technology even in the presence of clearly superior technologies. What is it that makes us chose the inferior traditional over the superior novel, at least for some transition period? How can we spot the superior technology and use it right away, avoiding the mistakes of the past?

I ask myself these questions whenever I observe how corporate publishers along with too many of my colleagues, discuss the future of scholarly publishing. The scientific community in general is still attached to the carriage model and hesitant to embrace the Model T. We now have modern technology allowing us to build the scholarly communication equivalent of the Model T, and yet, much of the discussion is still focused around which horse to use, only sometimes the potentiality of actually getting rid of the horse: people wonder what one should use instead of impact factors, how publishing data is a major problem, if the taxpayer should have access to the research they funded, if scholarly societies should still use horses to make money, which paper version should be linked to on PubMed, or what the article of the future should look like and many other silly things like that. None of these issues would even exist, if we dropped all historical baggage and designed a scholarly communication system for the 21st century.

Many people may think Ford was a genius and they may be correct, but to care more about technology than tradition doesn't require genius. Come on people, let's not waste twenty years on horseless carriages, only to find out we could have built a Model T today! Drop the carriage and go for the car!
Posted on Tuesday 22 January 2013 - 17:18:46 comment: 5

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