The introduction of new technology into everyday life will always take longer than you think
In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter, an American cognitive scientist, formulated a useful general rule that applies to all complex tasks. Hofstadter’s law says that “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”. It may not have the epistemological status of Newton’s first law, but it is “good enough for government work”, as the celebrated computer scientist Roger Needham used to say.
Faced with this assertion, readers of Wired magazine, visitors to Gizmodo or followers of Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s sainted technology correspondent, will retort that while Hofstadter’s law may apply to mundane activities such as building a third runway at Heathrow, it most definitely does not apply to digital technology, where miracles are routinely delivered at the speed of light. Think of the astonishing advances in machine learning, for example, or the sophistication of smartphones. Or think of the self-driving car, an idea that seemed preposterous only 15 years ago and yet is already a reality on the highways of a number of US states. Surely these and other achievements of digital technology took less time than we thought?