Technical Perfection and Irrelevance

Jan 19, 2022
Every technology becomes technically perfect at the precise moment when it becomes irrelevant. – Marc Andreessen (h/t Elad Gil)

For a real life example, look no further than the history of sailing ships. In the decades after the steam ship was invented, there were more improvements to sailing ships than they had in the previous 300 years.

Why? First, I think we have to define technical perfection. To me, "technically perfect" technology means (1) No leaky abstractions, (2) imperceptible downtime (see 5 9's), (3) performance optimized.

Irrelevance comes to all technically perfect technology.

  • Optimization is fragile. Technology is optimized for a certain set of constraints, when the requirements change (and they do), optimized software becomes unoptimized. Technically perfect, for the wrong world.
  • As a technology approaches the asymptote of perfection, improvements inevitably slow. Smaller improvements, smaller returns. There was once much money to be made with railroads and wiring homes with electricity.
  • Stewart Feldman decided he couldn't remove tabs from his new build tool, Make, because he already had 12 users. Adoption creates constraints. Stable and airtight interfaces mean software can reliably be built on top. Innovation accrues to higher layers while technically perfect layers must remain stable.