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.

Disintermediating the entertainment industry

I’ve been thinking a lot about “entertainment content”, people’s increasing demands for what they want / when they want it, and the proliferating host of gadgets that are on the market. I mean, we have a “phone”, a “tv”, and “ipad”, etc etc. There have been fits and starts towards true convergence for years now…I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the computer people being the convergence drivers (the Origami micro PC was an attempt a few years ago), or the phone people, or the television people – as it turns out, the “phones” are where convergence has come from.

….At any rate, and despite all the convergence gadgets, entertainment content is still being delivered in a really channeled manner. I pay for tv, for my Internet enabled phone  (where I can stream tv shows), for Internet access and then Netflix for their streaming entertainment, and for the most part these four (TV, phone, Internet, Netflix) are four access point for the same content. This is obviously not efficient.

I’m waiting for the day when I pay for one access point – and I think it will be through the phone. As soon as what we now call a “phone” is able to act as the funnel point for my entertainment needs and then send the information to the output device which is set up to interact with that data, the need for all these others will vanish. So – I will choose what I want to watch (when I want to watch it), tell the phone to stream it and output to the large screen on my wall. Or I will tell it to connect to a keyboard, and an external screen then work on a Word document.

I understand that this all has challenges: besides the obvious current bandwidth issues of the “phone” device (which can be solved), there’s the challenges that the entertainment content people (20th Century Fox, etc) face in their current agreements with the existing/legacy distribution channels. The entire industry will be turned upside down, and every tier of the chain is madly scrambling to figure out how to manage what’s happening. But it will happen because the people who have the most to gain – the phone companies – will push for it and have the fledgling support of consumers who are flocking to smart phones to back up their push.

I’ll talk about how cloud storage is also going to enable these developments in another post….as well as how consumer demand for instant gratification is one of the biggest drivers behind all of this.

And also the ramification for brands and advertising. Which is huge.

Update 1/8/2011: At CES, Motorola unveiled the Atrix Superphone, which has docking capabilities that allow you to use it with a mouse and a keyboard as if it were a normal computer (with 4G capabilities and a dual-core Tegra 2 processor – yee haw!). Not only can they now run Word, Excel, etc AND communicate AND surf the internet AND stream entertainment etc etc – the only thing keeping this from happening was interface and processing power. With cloud storage local memory won’t be needed (you stream it from your virtual memory on demand). Watch out laptop manufacturers – this is going to make you as obsolete as you did the traditional computer towers.