Four ideas that have been kicking around in my head for a while, but didn’t quite feel like standalone posts. Part-observation, part-manifesto make of the four trends what you will.
There is a temptation to think that new developments will evolve in a manner that is entirely positive for society. However that generally isn’t the case, whether it was pricing information or online advertising; seemingly liberating technology actually is a power multiplier against the consumer. There is no reason to think that developments like mobile contextual data or the quantified self will be any different.
Yet there constantly exists amongst many of my peers a data utopianism that blinkers them to the ethical and process issues that need to be carefully thought through. That isn’t to say that I am negative on technological progress but mindful of the responsiblity that comes with it; on an individual and collective basis.
Liberation from choice
One of the standout successes in commerce start-ups this year has been careful curation. From Jason Goldberg’s Fab, Birchbox Inc, Frank & Oak to Bureau of Trade the e-commerce provider has become a curator. An arbitor of cool. The business has freed us from excessive consumer choice like a real-world personal shopper with hipster aesthetic. Choice is hard, it is overwhelming, it promotes disatisfaction as every option isn’t ‘the one’: the perfect set of jeans, the ultimate cup of coffee or the perfect gift.
Over the past number of years we heard from technology companies about convergence. The companies that bought into this are suffering. Japanese electronics firms particularly Sony bought into this vision and tried to implement it and failed miserably. Whilst its eyes was off the ball, it had its premium position in consumer electronics by just good enough products made by the Koreans and Chinese brands like Hi-sense.
Japanese electronics companies are trying to get back into the game by attempting to square the circle between common owned data and contextual devices through looking at new ways to connect consumer electronics in a seamless manner. Yet the biggest consumer problem they face is that television is about tuning out whereas the computer and internet content is about turning on. Both very different contexts.
The PC, which had historically been the ultimate digital Swiss Army knife is seeing declining sales with consumers as lightweight devices like tablets and smartphones replace them in communications and content consumption. I can’t remember the last time that I used Yahoo! Instant Messenger, but I use WeChat and Skype on my mobile pretty much every day.
The soft innovation crisis
Silicon Valley veteran Judy Estrin in her book Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy some four years ago highlighted that the US and by extension one could argue, the western hemisphere is being left behind in hard innovation. Instead of developments moving Moore’s Law forwards we have a social network that built on the likes of The WELL, Friendster and MySpace. Even the smartphone is based on operating system computer science that can trace itself back to Bell Labs in the 1960s. None of the user experience developments have moved significantly on from Doug Engelbart’s famous SRI demonstration in 1968 at the Mother Of All Demos.
Products like Siri have highlighted the huge leaps forward that AI still needs to make some four decades after massive defence spending first started going into it.
We have huge problems in energy:
- Sustainable energy such as wind power and solar don’t work, tidal and wave power haven’t been commercialised
- Nuclear power development has been limited, promising work on Thorium and fast-breeder reactors have gone nowhere
- Nuclear fusion is still a pipe-dream
- Semi-conductors haven’t moved on since significantly
- Battery technology needs major leap forwards
- Transportation still needs fossil fuels
- Algae-based bio-fuels seem to have stuck in development
All of these areas in isolation represent a soft innovation crisis and an opportunity, yet sufficient capital and will seem to be lacking. That Facebook has attracted more more money than the various private space programmes in the US is insane.