Thoughts on an Interview of Digital Camera’s Inventor: Steve Sasson

Another quotation today. Inventor of the digital camera: Steve Sasson. He produced the first device for capturing and storing visual images as digital data… in 1975. Pretty good story at his Wikipedia page. There are two ideas that I find really important about this short interview at David Friedman’s Photography blog. The first idea is how Sasson thinks about the audience for whom he is innovating:

The only more permanent form of digital storage I had available to me at the time was digital cassette. It took about 23 seconds to record, and the tape would hold 30 images — a number I chose, by the way, to be conveniently between 24 and 36. I didn’t want to store just one or two images on there, because then they’d say “well, that’s not very useful”; I didn’t want to store a hundred or a thousand images on there, because nobody knew how to deal with that concept.

The key, I think, when you put across an idea, is you have to understand the culture you’re dealing with, first and foremost… and put everything very much like the culture’s used to, and then put only the essential elements of your idea out there, so it doesn’t get confused with things that might complicate the concept.

I can’t imagine a more precise and articulate description of this concept. Be aware of the technology’s existing conceptual and practical context (that is… the way people “think about” or “conceptualize” a technology they use). Identify and isolate what’s essential about your innovation. Make the relationship between the existing concepts and your innovation as simple and intuitive as possible. Wow. The interview is short, and for good reasons. But I like to wonder what Sasson might have had to say about the “rhetoric” necessary for inventors to communicate these innovations successfully.

The other important quotation from this interview reveals how Sasson thinks about building a model of the future:

“I like to say to inventors, ‘Be aware that your invention is in an environment when the rest of the world is inventing along with you, and so by the time the idea matures, it’ll be in a totally different world. I think that was the case with the digital camera.”

Inventors need not only to be able to spot the practical needs of their potential audiences, but they also need to understand those needs as trending forward into a world of constant innovation from all areas. There’s a trajectory of innovation, but there are also parallel trajectories of innovation pushing forward along side the need you’re trying to address.

It’s impossible to know the future. No kidding. But I do think it’s possible to learn about a culture’s history and strategies for innovation. The real power of inventors, I think, is to understand that tack toward innovation, and contextualize it in terms of existing technologies, emerging technologies, and pursued technologies. The most successful inventors, I would guess, have excellent understandings of the relationships between innovation and context. And the discipline to limit the scope of their innovation to what’s practical for a given audience/context.

These are ideas that have been coalescing for me for the last couple of years, as I’ve researched the history of the book and various histories of new media innovation. I’m trying to gain an understanding of what is essential about this cultural concept of “the book,” as well as innovation strategies within the contexts of hardware, software, and literacy practices. It’s a pretty huge undertaking, and my biggest struggle is to find ways of limiting the scope of the project so as to keep it comprehensible, as well as finishable (is that a word?).

Anyway, it comes back, again, to the power of simplicity. And since I’m all about the power of rhetoric, I’ve become increasingly interested in the power (maybe even necessity) of the aphorism. More on that another time. For now, remember:

Keep your innovation simple. Offer a clear, simple explanation. Pay attention to your audience’s model of thinking. Understand the history of innovation in your field, or related fields. Maintain a sense for current trending needs and innovations. Only pursue peripheral understandings in terms of how they help you understand your central project. Now if only I could take my own advice.

And if you’re wanting to listen to the short interview here, without heading over to Friedman’s blog:

Inventor Portrait: Steven Sasson from David Friedman on Vimeo.