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 😉