The purpose of this paper is to understand how visionary system architects wean the development of a new technology away from the seductions of the path of least resistance – a complementary relationship with the entrenched system.
The paper draws on two cases wherein critical players started pursuing visions of a full‐fledged system while the technology was still an appendage to an established one: Theodore Vail and the development of the Bell telephone system; and the US Navy and the development of wireless telegraphy. Vail's interests were of a commercial nature, securing competitive advantage over Western Union and future rivals. The US Navy's interests were of a geopolitical nature, overthrowing Britain's monopoly on trans‐oceanic cable telegraphy.
The pursuit of system benefits requires long‐term thinking. In terms of day‐to‐day actions it requires a persistent effort against the seductions of a complementary relationship or the path of least resistance. Vail was compelled to form a separate organization – AT&T – to maintain focus on system formation in the face of short‐term distractions. The US Navy pushed for rules against cross ownership of cable and wireless and opposed international treaties that clubbed the two technologies into the same category, as it wanted the latter to develop independently of the former.
The failure of anticipation, in the case of network technologies, is largely rooted in our inability to see beyond the path of least resistance. Drawing on strategies employed by Vail and the US Navy to wean the development of a new technology away from the path of least resistance, the paper alerts us to possibilities other than the seemingly obvious ones.
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