Technopropriation: Turning Old Tech Into New Ideas

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It’s often said that nothing is original anymore.

Wait, what? Aren’t we the generation that grew up being told we were all unique and beautiful snowflakes? Maybe we are and maybe we’re not, but one thing is for certain: the truly brilliant, original ideas are few and far between. And more often than not, even those are discovered by accident.

Fortunately, originality is overrated.

 “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” – Salvador Dali


Dali, the man who painted some of the weirdest stuff of all time, argues that what we create is mostly a reinterpretation of stuff which already exists. Technology isn’t any different. Especially the kinds of tech demanded by an increasingly gadget-hungry public.

But in order to deliver the best possible products to end users – if we want to shoot to the top of markets, surprise investors, and ultimately make the world a better, more magical place – our time is best spent refining and revising yesterday’s tech than delving into the mind of the science-fiction writer.

For instance, meet my friend Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. Or AJAX for short.

AJAX is a symbol of what I like to call technopropriation; the re-appropriation of old technology into new uses.

In 1996, when Microsoft introduced the iframe HTML tag, they were using HTTP requests in a brilliant new way. Instead of reloading the entire browser window, they found a novel way to instead just reload a specific “box”. This drastically sped up load times, and generally improved the overall experience of surfing the web.

Over the next few years, this approach gradually found its way into Outlook and, eventually, Google’s Gmail and Maps. As bandwidth speeds increased, so too did the growing complexity and power of applications. Suddenly, AJAX found itself at the heart of many of the technologies we’ve grown to love and cherish about the internet. But it had really been there all along, like a faithful assistant, quietly doing it’s thing without much notice or fanfare.


At your bidding, master…

Which is all just a somewhat longwinded way of saying that technopropriation is at the heart of almost every major innovation. It’s our responsibility to take full advantage of everything that came before us in order to build a better tomorrow.


And while there will always be a need for new technologies, those who cross their arms and patiently glance at their watch waiting for original ideas to fall from the sky, will not have any part in our forward motion. As Dali warned, they will produce nothing.

To make the message more explicitly practical: don’t be afraid to borrow from the past. Use frameworks, engines, grids,
systems, code snippets, and anything else that helps you get from A to B. Make your goal to solve problems, and not to be the the prizewinner of Most Original. You might just end up inventing the next big AJAX, steam-powered carriage, or terrifyingly marketable Frankenstein.

And who knows, you may just be surprised to learn that your idea gets technopropriated into the Next Big Thing.

Just remember: it was also just old stuff, and that’s ok.

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