Within a technical context, platform has typically been used to describe the ways computer hard wiring and software frameworks are designed and combined to enable software, particularly application software, to run.
More recently, though, the term is being used to describe the sorts of open, freewheeling communications environments that produce significant, often far-reaching intellectual, scientific or technological innovations. While the term platform within this context typically is associated with the social networking that has grown out of Web 2.0, some writers maintain that platforms have essentially been with us throughout the modern age.
In his book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation,” science writer Steven Johnson cites Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) as one of history’s best examples of a significant platform, though there have been many others.
The shock that followed the Sputnik crisis in 1957 prompted two young physicists employed by the laboratory, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, to test a series of hunches related to the launch, which first involved tracking the satellite’s 20 megahertz signal with equipment available at the lab. This led to another observation: that they could use the Doppler effect to track the satellite’s precise speed and location.
Several weeks later, at the prompting of one of the lab’s administrators, they also reverse processed what they had learned: in other words, they discovered that it was possible to locate a ground position based on the precise location of an orbiting satellite.
This insight ultimately enabled the Americans to hoist the Soviets with their own petard by developing technology that enabled U.S. Naval submarines to use an orbiting satellite to deliver nuclear-tipped missiles into Soviet territory with devastating accuracy.
However, this was only the beginning: these insights formed the basis of what we know today as GPS (Global Positioning Systems), which affects all of us in our everyday lives, from printing Google maps and navigating cars through congested streets, to enabling mountains climbers to negotiate treacherous ascents up steep inclines.
Reflecting back more than 50 years later, Guier and Weiffenbach credited the open, freewheeling intellectual environment for producing the conditions in which these sorts of ideas could connect and spawn new ideas and innovations.
The APL had served not only as a laboratory, but also as a highly generative, highly innovative platform.
As Johnson stresses, one of the remarkable things about platforms is their open-ended nature. The effects that grow out of these environments, while typically unpredictable, often confer humanity with significant, if not immense, benefits over the long-term.
Within this networked era, platforms have taken on greater significance. The increasing levels of social networking that have followed Web 2.0 have also rapidly enhanced and accelerated the formation of these types of open-ended platforms.
Johnson and other technology pundits believe that the highly generative platforms that have emerged from this networking are only the beginning of a process that will confer immense benefits on humanity throughout the next century.
Author: Jim Langcuster (@extensionGuy)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.