Desire for the familiar obscures the real pace of innovation

Change has a terrific track record of taking us by surprise. Over and over again, it goes unseen or unidentified over long periods when we should have been adapting our thinking to deal with the new.

It is a physiological fact that we tire quickly when processing new information, which is why the first days in a new job or on a long journey are so draining.

So we prefer the familiar. And our operating systems are so much better at it that we try and dress the new in the clothes of the old, the garb we know.

In 1764, James Hargreaves invented a machine that could spin yarn eight times faster than a person. It devastated the textile economy and put thousands out of work.

So what did they call it? The Spinning Jenny. We picture a cheery lass from Bolton and all feel rather better about it.

The steam locomotive, an invention that would change the lives of billions of people forever, was originally dubbed the Iron Horse. Just like a horse, only iron. Much the same surely.

The motor car was christened the "horseless carriage" as if it was a sort of line extension, as opposed to a device that would take just 50 years to demote the horse from two-and-a-half millennia as vital travel equipment to the purely recreational.

Where reference points do not exist for something completely original, it is understandable to draft in terminology from the familiar. Anyone still talk about "taping" a show on Sky+?

But getting stuck on outdated or inadequate language demotes the scale of change and sedates a reaction that should be bigger. So once again, real innovation takes us by surprise.

Look at the mobile phone. Internet browser, camera - still and video - satnav, MP3 player, calculator, alarm clock, diary, address book, games console and, soon, a wallet. In Korea and China, you can already make payments using the mobile.

In Western Europe there are more registered mobile phones than people and, in the developing world, the mobile handset will leapfrog the computer since it's cheaper and doesn't need wires in the ground.

But for all its capacity, still we call it a mobile phone. We all know mobile phones - had them for years. The same goes for the social network - a clumsy and inadequate label.

See the trap? Our soothing, lazy language demeans inventions that will change the world.

Richard Eyre is a media pluralist richard.eyre@haymarket.com

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