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Will Technology Be Our Master or Aid?

Looking back at a year like 2013 is like writing a travelogue about the first, deep drop on a roller coaster … while you're on it. And looking forward is equally fraught with the potential for serious miscalculation. There are, however, a few major themes that merit at least an attempt at exploration.

Technology: From Top-Down to Bottom-Up

The major feature of 2013 and the several years preceding it, is without a doubt the exploding progress and multifaceted adoption of technology across virtually all sectors of our culture. Millions of words, including some of my own, have been written about the changing impact of technology on society and business, but stepping back, it seems that today's major difference from eons past may be less the blazing speed of technology development, and more the changes to its entry points into society.

In years past, certainly from the 19th century forward, technological changes have tended to enter society at the top — through business, the military, academia and other cultural groups with large funding, government and established infrastructure. As new technologies were digested at the top, they filtered down into society at large, often taking decades, controlled by real or de facto monopolies, and exacting a price that restricted them to the relatively few who could afford them. Even Henry Ford's revolutionary automobile assembly line techniques introduced in 1913 didn't make automobiles affordable for the masses until the mid 1920s.

While this materially slowed progress, it also provided an opportunity for society to anticipate and prepare for the impacts to come.

Bypassing the Middlemen: Technology Straight to the Consumer

Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating from the 90's forward, new technology has begun entering use ever closer to the consumer/user level and with less filtering by the culture. Coupled with a globalized economy enabling manufacture of complex technology-centric devices with shorter lead times and ever lower cost, this bottom-up phenomenon has further accelerated, making new technology not only available but affordable for the consumer, even youth, marketplaces.

A device with the power of today's smart phone, for example, that would have cost five figures just 30 years ago and been far too large for any pocket or purse, is available today for no more than a two-year contract with a communications carrier.

This growing downward pressure on entry has been further accelerated by a breakdown of the ad hoc technology monopolies of earlier periods. After the first telephone exchange allowed well-heeled consumers to have communications in their home in 1878, the telephonic communication world was controlled, almost exclusively until 1984, by what became known as the Bell System.

Beginning my career with Ma Bell in California in the mid-1960s, I can attest just how much of a dictatorship, albeit nominally benign, it was. Beginning with the court ordered break-up of the Bell System in 1984, the communications industry has moved toward ever more open architectures and operations until today when most anyone can connect to and use the Internet with little or no capital and only perfunctory regulatory permission.

This, I believe, is the most important part of the sea change that has revolutionized the digital world, for better … and for worse.

If I'm correct, this change dictates that much more pre-thought be given to the likely impact of new consumer technology on our culture lest we find ourselves dealing with the negative effects before we have even realized anything is changing.

Life … Still in the Technology Fast Lane

Although perhaps most important, technology's entry at the consumer level is not the only major change with which we are dealing. Driven by the apparent validity of Moore's Law of exponential computing power growth, the increasing speed with which new technologies enter the marketplace is also a major factor.

One of the more benign effects of the increasing speed of technological development has been the ability of consumer product manufacturers to continually create new products and versions, keeping the buying public’s interest alive and the cash registers humming. This is evident in Apple’s ability to sell millions of each new iPhone based on new functions, capacity, speed and colors, even when the differences are less than breathtaking.

 

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