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Technology – Obsolescence vs. Empowerment

trimmertvs1.PngThe New York Times has a short article on the rapid demise of the CRT as a display technology. Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT’s, that big box I still call a TV) are headed the same way as the 8-track, pulse dialing, typewriter, and mechanical adding machine.

It feels like the bulk of technological evolution in the last 20 years has been more about enabling entirely new applications, and less about simply replacing the technology of old. I wonder if this is a sustainable trend, and if the pendelum is poised to swing back.

I believe technology evolves in two ways:

  1. Technology is obsoleted and replaced by new tech. Think of the evolution of music from the LP to MP3’s. Think about the evolution of the bank teller to the ATM to online banking. Trains to cars to airplanes. The end goal remains the same, the method for accomplishing that goal is superior. I call this the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ model.
  2. Technology that empowers new applications entirely. Cell phones now let you make/take a call anywhere and not just where copper wires exist. This is the “New New Thing” model.

Some technology is a hybrid. Digital cameras are a migration from film, but they empowered tons of new activities (take a picture of a UPC code, email it, and get competitive pricing for example) and will continue to do so.

I like to think about technologies from my lifetime that my children will not know. We don’t have a flat screen TV (I watch little TV) but it’s likely I will in the next few years. My desktop CRTs have long departed. CRT’s will be only a dim memory to my kids. I also like to think about applications they will take for granted that didn’t exist when I was there age, like cell phones or ATMs.

I find it much easier to think of new applications they will take for granted, and harder to think of technologies that have been replaced. It feels like the rate of raw technology substitution is decreasing, and the rate of application creation is increasing. Will this trend accelerate or reverse? Do we swing back into an industrial revolution like period at some point?

I think that is what clearly draws the line between the industrial age, and the current ‘post-industrial’ age when it comes to technology. Most of the value creation of recent years has been about empowering new applications entirely. The mantra of Faster, Better, Cheaper has provided the underpinnings, but it’s the New New Thing that captures the majority of economic value.

The idea of rapid industrial progress via the Faster, Better, Cheaper model led to visions of flying cars, supersonic jet travel, better medical techniques, and space travel. It as part of pop culture at about the same time it reached its peak. “The Six Million Dollar Man“, A popular early 1970’s TV show, even had the mantra in the intro credits.

Steve Austin: astronaut. A man barely alive. “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.”

Most of the grand visions from the 50’s and 60’s never happened.

Are we making the same mistake in this post industrial phase by continuing to extrapolate large numbers of applications from communication and computing technology? Just as we falsely predicted supersonic jet travel, bionic men, and voyages to Jupiter, what is it that we are falsely envisioning now? How much more pervasive can information get and how much value is left to be created?

Is the new source of wealth creation in the next 50 years….. flying cars, supersonic jets, better medical techniques, and space travel? I don’t know. But I would rather be a Mechanical, Nuclear, or Chemical Engineer leaving school today than an Electrical or Computer engineer.

Closing Note – I have never read Alvin Toffler but I understand much of my thinking has been covered by him already. Which book is best – Future Shock or The Third Wave?


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