Neil Perkin, director, Only Dead Fish.
I gave a keynote recently to a group of graduates, most with less than six months experience in the industry, as part of the excellent Google Squared programme. My subject was technological change.
With so much written about digital and technological disruption we take it as read that we are living in an age of unprecedented innovation. But are we? Working in the communications industry it’s hard to believe anything other than that the Internet has completely rewired a multitude of markets and succeeded in bringing forth an unparalleled level of product and service innovation. Some even go as far as describing how the information age is leading us into a ‘post-industrial’ era characterised by a period of change no less significant than the industrial revolution.
Yet there are some persistent voices making the case that, in the words of author Neal Stephenson, in years to come we could well look back on the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a time distinctly lacking in groundbreaking inventions that truly impacted the way in which we live our lives.
One such voice, the economist Tyler Cowen (who has written an e-book on the subject called The Great Stagnation) compares the current age unfavourably to the huge changes seen in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century brought about by advances such as electricity, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, cameras, the atomic bomb, aircraft, television and other home appliances. He suggests that we are now on a “technological plateau” that is frustrating growth.
Technology writer Nicholas Carr has pointed out that whilst the conditions of life changed utterly between 1890 and 1950, they have arguably changed much less since 1950. Yet he suggests that instead of a decline in innovation, we have witnessed a shift in its focus towards areas that produce smaller-scale, less visible breakthroughs. This, he believes, is reflective of a hierarchy of innovation that runs parallel to Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. We have shifted from innovating technologies that sit at the bottom of the hierarchy and change the shape of the physical world or social organisation, to those that concentrate higher up on innovating around technologies focused on internal states and self-actualisation (leisure activities, self-expression, identity management, personalisation, self-improvement). These innovations naturally have less transformative, less visible effects.
It’s a fascinating thought. I have a lot of sympathy however, for the argument that we have yet to see the full impact that the internet will have in our lives and, like electricity, it is only when new social and economic structures are built from the ground up, informed by the new technology, that we will see the kind of fundamental change it always had the potential to bring.
The content and communications industries have been at the sharp end of a kind of change that rewires entire industries. A kind of change that is widely distributed, effortlessly global, and forever changes the relationship between producer and consumer - one that is perhaps less physical and tangible but no less fundamental.
Given that, how can we possibly anticipate the scale of innovation that data will bring to the healthcare industry, or digital resources to education, or embedded Internet and 3D printing to manufacturing, or new connections between people to how social movements happen and governments get elected?
By the time those young graduates in the Google Squared programme reach the height of their careers, perhaps the digital age will indeed be recognised not as one of stagnation, but as one of real transformation.