Disparity and consequences: How technology will create an opportunity divide

Technology – particularly the Internet – was hailed as “the great leveler” in the early days, and indeed it many ways it has been.

But I was struck by a comment on someone’s post today, that both of his grandchildren – 4½ and 7½ – were getting iPads in their xmas stockings. “Really?” I thought. Those things are not cheap, and I don’t believe childproof.

But what struck me wasn’t the obvious display of disposable income (shocking to my thoroughly calvinist upbringing lol – still working on that), but that those kids are being handed – handed– the future keys to success: technical aptitude. And what that means is increasingly society will be delineated by the “haves” and “have nots”, since the kids in the “haves” group will have such a clear, relevant advantage.

Now I’m not a social crusader. I get that “life isn’t fair” and that there have always been inequities between the rich and poor, with all the associated privileges, be it access to better food, medicine, investment opportunities, recreation, etc. But it just seems that there’s never been something with quite as much power to create so much disparity. The kids with early access and education using it will thrive in the future, the rest will not.

We need to make sure that the kids in the “have not” group have at least a chance of success in the future where technical savvy is a requirement. Moral obligations aside (I’m not a fan of using morals to make an argument), but from a pragmatic perspective: among the ranks of those underprivileged kids could be the next brilliant programmer, leader, designer who makes life better for us all.

I’m sure all of this has been dicussed and anticipated many times, one of the results being the “One laptop per child” program. But we need to ensure that in the US as well, we provide a system that supports the training and development tools to all the kids in our country. How else are we as a nation going to stay competitive on a global basis?

Disruptive cataclysms? The impact of rapidly changing technology

Speed Racer didn't mind a fast pace

Technology – and the “rapid changes” everyone is talking about – is being hailed as a disruptive force. Most recently Mark Zuckerberg used the term to describe the future business landscape, and how Facebook (or rather, erm, “social networking”) was at the forefront of the next generation of businesses.

But there are two levels of where “disruption” is happening: not only at the business level, but also at the consumer. I’m going to stick to consumers in this discussion, snce I’m constantly hearing about people adapting to the “rate of change”, or rather, the (perceived) difficulties this is bringing.

To the average person technology has brought neat things to their lives at a dizzying rate, such as the ability to chat 24 hours a day with “friends”, communicate instantly in a few different ways, and rendered getting lost obsolete.

It’s brought geographically disperse people with niche interests together (You knit clothes for your pet goat?? Me too!), brought us exotic food all year long, extended our lives, and for the most part – kept us healthy. The world has become infinitely smaller.  We can walk and talk and bank and read and chat and pat our heads while rubbing our tummies and drinking our coffee to go…

But it’s also (among other things) made us work around the clock (well, in the US anyway), and created whole new areas of interaction etiquete that is as of yet, still being defined. And don’t get me started on online dating.

I suppose to many people it does indeed feel like it is moving too rapidly (with the resulting frankensteinish stories on the news, today it’s “PASTOR SAYS FACEBOOK IS THE GATEWAY TO SIN!!! – crikey), but I keep returning to my core assertion, though, which is less flamboyantly sexy than many other who are predicting all sorts of new societies and seismic level cultural shifts as a result: technology only enables and enhances what we already do. So while I don’t subscribe to the dystopian future where our computer overlords rule us through our dependency on them, I also don’t believe that some huge shift in basic humanity is going to happen as a result.

I see one of two potential paths. Either:

  1. The impact of perceived rapid changes in culture will create a pendulum swing back to the uber conservative, as people retreat to comfort zones; I mean a serious Luddite movement, complete with agricultural faith-based communities and prairie dresses (god help, and excuse that pun). Rejection of modern life in full flower.      …or…
  2. People will embrace technological changes as they become an increasingly invisible driver of their every day experiences, not forcing any cataclysmic reaction whatsoever. And in a generation or so, the “fast pace” (ubiquitous, instant connectivity) will be all they’ve ever known – eliminating the desire to “return to a simpler life”

My guess is some will go one way, some others. There’s never one recipe for all personalities. Those who crave routine, tradition, and fear change will retreat. The others will continues to embrace the double edged benefits of our brave new world.

You can’t force people to accept new technology though, or the changes to their lives that will be associated with it, unless they want it. I’m a true believer in you can lead the horse to water, so to speak, but you can’t make it drink….if the technology that’s introduced is not adopted, it will fail,  regulating the “speed” of change naturally. It can’t be forced on the unwilling. People are flocking to smart phones because it speaks to a basic human need to communicate, and increasingly, instantly.

While I’m on a roll, though, I’m actually going to challenge the entire assumption: that change is happening “so rapidly”.

I think the major shifts have already emerged:

  • Social networks becoming the personal authorities (requiring brands to figure out how to communicate and relate, vs message “to”)
  • Ubiquitous/instant communication (which will require cross- and trans platform technologies / infrastructure)
  • Personalized information (requiring good data and effective predictive algorythms) on demand

Businesses are incrementally improving on all of these (it’s still in infancy), and figuring out how to seamlessly integrate all these things, how to gather, track and correlate data properly to best “serve” the customer (maximize profit), but I don’t believe there will be any great “leaps” above and beyond these; no major paradigm shifts that leave these concepts in the dust…and that’s because these are speaking to – at a DNA level – the most basic human needs: affiliation with a group <love>, and the powerful human ego.

So disruptive? For the business forced to figure out how to compete, and survive in an era of decreasing product life cycles, definitely.  

But to the consumer, who is ultimately holding the reigns, it only currently feels so because it’s still all so disjointed – and visible – and confusing. As it all starts to work better and becomes more invisible and seamless, not so much. So the future money will be earned by the companies that can help  make the experience as close to “breathing” as possible – ideally consumers won’t even notice it’s there,  they’ll just have the experience they want.

So that great human revolution won’t be necessary; we’ll all be too busy catering to our egos: chatting, opining,  connecting, and – *sigh* – blogging.

Twitter me smart(er): Intelligence and social networking

I’ve seen a whole spate of articles like this one in the recent few months that frankly, raise my hackles (what is a hackle, actually?)

The reason is the premise is all wrong.

They are claiming that the technology – in this case, Twitter – can actually make you smarter, based on a semester long study of student who use / don’t use Twitter. The ones who did reportedly had higher GPAs.

Never mind that a GPA is hardly a measure of intelligence (the correlated premise of the article), but more importantly “Twitter” is only the technology that enables something that humans already do (and always have): communicate.

If these students are already the type who share and partake in a higher amount of information exchange, then the technology is just the medium. You can’t attribute increased GPAs to the technology, rather to the type of person who uses it.

And for that matter, they should have – if they wanted to prove that there is a correlation between social networking and increased grades – included Facebook and other programs.

Methodology of the study aside, it’s an example of the kind of channeled thinking that is so limiting.

My way? Branding in a personalized world

I follow comments on articles and posts with not-so-always-as-unattached-as-it-should-be bemusement; quite often the article/post is more of a catalyst than an actual source of information.

I’m struck by a thought tonight though, after a particularly vitriolic back-and-forth session on a Daily Show post: what will “authenticity” look like in the future, and how will we recognize it?

There used to be “trusted” authoritarian figures – Cronkite, Brokaw, those types. But with the advent of “social media”, our trusted advisers are friends, or others in our community (digital or otherwise). Fine. But as the noise goes up digitally (increasingly everyone has a loud opinion), will it perversely create closer “real life” ties as a “safe” refuge from the melee?

And if brands are currently scrambling to take advantage of the current channels/technologies and create relationships with customers, instead of pushing messages (a paradigm shift that very few have managed to successfully understand yet), how will they deal with this change?

Some say “branding” will be more important than ever, and in the short term perhaps they are right. But there is a whole generation of people who will not have brand relationship as we did for the first part of their life, and are developing their own “digital communities” from the beginning, growing up swimming in a sea of constant, instant communication. How will they find and become loyal to brands if the communities are formed – and distrustful of “outsiders” – from the start?

For that matter, how will be be exposed to alternate ideas & philosophies, something critical to maturity and intellectual growth?

I was thinking about this a while back, because of services like Pandora. So neat, really, to just start it with a few artists/songs you like, and then (theoretically) never have to hear another song you don’t like. Personalization at it’s best.

The problem with that is, there are whole genres of music I’ve never even heard of, and end up liking when someone makes me aware of them. How is this going to happen if from the beginning of my life I’ve had it only served up “my way”? How will I know what “my way” is? Particularly if I only interact with groups (virtual and otherwise) I already know, and “trust”.  

A lot to ponder.

Just a thought.

Update 11/16/10: Ted Koppel wrote an article for the Washington Post today titled “Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news” where he discusses the lack of “trusted authority” in a fragmented, 24 hour media world. Here’s my favorite quote:

Broadcast news has been outflanked and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options. The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we’re now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.

I love it when famous people agree with me 😉

Virtual me

A few years ago I met with a company that was in start up phase, with a cool vision: they were developing body scanning software (not new) BUT – and this is the cool part – they were taking it a step further by planning on installing kiosks in malls which were tied to the apparel inventory in the store at that mall.

So you could be scanned, tell it you were looking for a red dress, and it would give you the list of options: “At Macy’s Liz Claiborne has a red dress in your size. At Bloomingdale’s, Tahari”.

Note: as any women can tell you, sizing is a “rough estimate” not an absolute – so you can be one size with one brand, and a different one with another. The body scanning software eliminated this fuzziness – it correlated your actual measurements with individual brand measurements and then checked inventory there to ensure you didn’t have to waste a lot of time searching and trying on things that didn’t fit. It would send you to the right place/brand/size without all the hassle.

Aside from the fact that some don’t find shopping a hassle and it’s a very utilitarian approach to searching and finding, this is clearly genius. But I’d like to see it taken a few steps further.

The body scanning /real time inventory integration should be combined with avatars and virtual world technology. Not in Second Life, although that can be a real hoot (hey, I know, I’m a geek) – but the ability to scan, build an avatar that actually does resemble you (not the idealized 20 year ago in my wildest fantasy version), with correct dimensions, and then – and this is the next steps – have it try on apparel that actually is based on real manufacturers styles and sizes. You could *immediately* actually see if that dress fits, how it looks in 3D, and whether it’s flattering.

This would be a huge cost reduction for what is a practice barely improved since the advent of the Sears catalog back in 1888. Currently catalog or Internet sales are a fuzzy science – a teeny picture (maybe, a shot from the back too), that’s no where close to your size/body shape. I don’t even bother, but when I have, I order two sizes and return the one that doesn’t fit – or return them both in disgust.

These returns cost both the retailers and the manufacturers a huge amount of money and hassle. It keeps inventory management a guessing game for the manufacturers, who have to take back inventory that doesn’t sell in the retail channel and also share – if not own – any sales price reductions that the retailers implement. So, if something comes back, it either goes to the sales rack or gets returned to the manufacturer. For the retailers it’s more about hassle and the costs associated with logistics.  

With body scanned avatars – and accurate sizing reflected in a virtual garment – the number of returns would be greatly reduced, because you would *know* it fit, and that it looked good. It’s such a win-win-win solution for everyone involved (consumer, retailer, manufacturer) that I don’t understand why I’ve not seen any movement towards developing this.

I’m not sure I really want to see what I look like in 3D, which I’m sure is a concern for many (I like my delusions as much as anyone….). But the amount of hassle and guessing it would eliminate would be a powerful incentive to try it.

And then when customized apparel manufacturing starts to go mainstream – it will be a necessity. Straight from scan to cutting table, so to speak, even if a laser is doing the cutting. But this disintermediates the retailers to a large extent, so has less incentive to be implemented.

I’m disappointed that in truth, I’ve been thinking about this for at least 5-6 years and as yet, it seems the industry is sticking with the old.

The good news is that my delusions are for now, still safe.