David Lavenda, "It is thinking about the long-term impact of technology use that inspires me to dig deeper"

"Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it." Credited to philosopher George Santayana, the phrase doesn’t necessarily promise solutions to current events, but does promise to put contemporary and potentially future events within context for deeper insights.

Whether it’s finding lessons in how to innovate from the Wright brothers, drawing comparisons between Isaac Newton’s work with gravitational interaction and modern marketers’ struggle to keep up with a growing sea of data or simply noting Slack’s antecedent in Internet Relay Chat, David Lavenda is a one-man force working to make sure we learn from technology’s past. An international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology, David brings this same perspective —  as well as his knowledge gained from his 30-odd years in the technology industry — to bear for the early stage technology companies he advises.  

What kept you sane during 2020?

Having worked out of an office for many years, I dreaded the prospect of having to work from home. We are fortunate to have enough space, so working from home was comfortable. So, after an initial adjustment, the ‘new normal’ turned out to be pretty good. Home deliveries for groceries and essential home equipment helped a lot. Sanity is in check. Just waiting for the fiber internet connection and we will be all set.

Where do you look for inspiration for your articles?

My inspiration usually comes from connecting a broad range of seemingly unrelated information into a coherent picture of what this means for us. Many of my usual information sources were missing this year. On the other hand, 2020 was a year of unprecedented change; a year which saw an incredible number of stories that explored how people dealt with the pandemic.

Information technology often plays a key role in these stories, since it helps people stay connected and businesses humming. But there is a danger in getting caught up in all the buzz, thinking technology is the solution to our problems. Experiences from past disruptive cycles show this to be inaccurate. It is thinking about the long-term impact of technology use that inspires me to dig deeper and uncover the big picture about how these changes will impact us in the future.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

Two come to mind immediately; the first is “life is a marathon and not a sprint.” The second, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln is originally found in the book of Proverbs (17:28) “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

I wished I followed the second piece of advice more than I did in 2020.

Which of your projects or research from 2020 (or upcoming for 2021) are you most excited about and why?

As the age of social media begins to mature, it appears that government is finally going to start reining in the industry’s excesses. So, now is the best time to take stock of the state of ‘social media’ as an information technology. The most basic question is, “Are we in better or worse shape than the generation who followed the inventions of the past information technologies; inventions such as the written word, the printed book, the telegraph, the television, and the internet?”

Exploring the similarities and differences between previous information revolutions and today’s can teach us a lot about how best to deal with the current revolution. I began this project in 2020 and will continue it in 2021.

If you could only recommend one business book, what would it be and why?

Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” A veritable textbook on how we make decisions, Kahneman dispenses with the fluff that fills most business books. Rather than base a thesis on a set of hand-picked anecdotes, the book presents findings based on many years of research and real-world experience. A must read.

Speed Round

What was the best book you read  in 2020?

Early in the pandemic, I realized that travel was not going to be possible in 2020, so as a poor substitute, I started to re-read Bill Bryson’s excellent travelogues.  It wasn’t the same as being there, but I didn’t suffer from jet lag either.

The best new (to me) book I read this year was Raymond Loewy’s 1951 classic “Never Leave Well Enough Alone,” which is a must-read for anyone interested in product design and branding.

What was the best movie you watched in 2020?

2020 was a disappointing year for movies. With most of the Hollywood movies on hold, I ended up watching (too many) Netflix series, together with a mix of old movies and documentaries. 2020 was a year for video introspection and review. Looking forward to seeing "Top Gun: Maverick" in 2021!

What was the best meal you ate in 2020?

Thanksgiving dinner was probably the best meal we had this year. With a partial lockdown in place, dinner was limited to the immediate family. Everyone was tasked with preparing something different, which made it unique; plus, this year provided a special opportunity to express thanks for the things that are really important, which made it even more meaningful.