Lateral Thinking w/ Withered Technologies

May 06, 2021

I'm Digvijay. I try to come up with mental models which helps me think & do stuff efficiently. Know more about me.

September 2014, Markus Persson witnesses 131 million active users on a side project he shipped in just a week. Minecraft then gets sold to Microsoft for \$2.5 billion. In the world of sandbox video games, where every compay is pushing hard on beautiful graphics and realistic environments, a pixelated game addicts millions of discord communities, twitch streamers and every gamer next door (fyi I don’t like Minecraft).

The fundamental idea behind products like such (more examples of ‘such’ below) is the very less known Nintendo’s product philosophy i.e. lateral thinking with withered technology (wikipedia mention). Meaning, picking concepts from one area which may not be new and introducing it to a totally new domain hence developing innovative solutions. A withered concept/tech is the one which is mature enough to be well understood (easier to develop), accessible and inexpensive; that when combined laterally creates a massive impact. Yokoi (inventor of Game Boy & many such successful games) believed Nintendo’s products were never actually “cutting edge”, they used displays of much older generation than their competitors, they used old hardware to mass produce devices at a cheaper cost making them accessible to all just how Minecraft runs on low end PCs too.

Infact, the initial prototypes of VR headsets were based on the concepts of stereostopic photography (introduced in the 1st half of 19th century), it was a withered idea - 2 pair of lens with a screen. Ford’s assembly lines were inspired by the continuous-flow production methods used by flour mills/canneries, something which was in practise since very long. A fairly simple (& ofcourse withered) concept brought to a new discipline, accelerated the production such that it took only one & a half hour to build one car compared to 12 previously. It won’t be false to mention that the introduction of assembly lines and methods used by Ford contributed largely in how we manufacture automobiles today.

You see, tons of these companies that have, in a way, shaped the industry(s)‘s preferences (Retro Tech: Game Boy) didn’t necessarily used state of the art tech.

David Epstien mentions one of the researcher he interviewed for his book Range, who observed that since 1990s (i.e. when information became much more accessible) there has been a rise in patents/innovations by generalists who didn’t had depth in a particular domain or atleast not all the industries their solution was based on, they started making much more important contributions than the specialists, speaking that way. He believes the advanced communication technologies have enabled us to create and disseminate information rapidly, that causes specialists to overlook. Yokoi himself wasn’t a good engineer, he picked up info that everyone else weren’t noticing. I can relate this with the no-code products being widely successful, may not be withered but has similar traits. Often devs over engineer solutions missing a lot of things.

There lies an opportunity for generalists to put the puzzles together, build interdisciplinary solutions with already understood & cheap technologies/methods!