The power of the fax effect--

more fax machines increasing the value of all previous machines--does not rely on the proliferation of Panasonic brand fax machines, or of any particular machine. Since many faxes are sent from laptop computers, or from a server somewhere, the power of plenty derives from opportunities rather than lumps of matter.

As opportunities proliferate, unintended uses take off. In the late 1970s, the Shah of Iran exiled his rival, the Ayatollah Khomeini, to Paris. Since the Shah controlled his country's media he assumed Khomeini would not be able to reach the Iranian people from France to stir up trouble. But sympathetic Iranian clergy exploited an unsuspected technological opportunity: the cassette tape. Every week in Paris Khomeini's friends recorded his inflammatory speeches on cheap recorders and smuggled copies (easily disguised as music tapes) into Iran, to be multiplied on $200 duplication machines and passed out to every mosque. On Fridays, Khomeini's sermons were played throughout Iran on boomboxes. The clerics turned the common tape deck into a broadcast network. I'm sure that not a single engineer who developed cassette tape technology ever envisioned it being used for broadcasting. Electronic media, because it is animated by electrons, is highly susceptible to being subverted by new uses.

Recently Sprint, the telecommunications company, pioneered flat cellular phone pricing--you could make all the cell phone calls you want for a fixed monthly fee. Within days of the pricing, the startled marketing experts at Sprint heard reports that people were using the cell phones as baby monitors. Parents would go into baby's bedroom with a cell phone, dial the kitchen, and then leave the line open. VoilĂ !



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This is a blog version of a book of mine first published in 1998. I am re-issuing it (two posts per week) unaltered on its 10th anniversary. Comments welcomed. More details here.
-- KK