The Inherent Issue
We humans get easily overwhelmed by complexity. To manage this, we’ve learned to navigate the world by treating its complexities as a system of discrete channels; slicing them into more manageable pieces. Consider each of our senses as the most primal example: we do not have a single sense with which to engage the world in its entirety, instead we have a multitude—one to address each slice or channel. When taken in tandem, our senses create a cohesive picture of the world, in our minds, that is larger than the sum of its parts.
At the other, more social, end of this spectrum of simplification are business objectives. Internally, these business channels are built and referred to as silos, while externally they may be the market segments that the business targets. Either way, to make the complexity manageable, humans—as individuals or groups—constantly break complexity into more discrete pieces to enable an understanding of the whole.
We’ve also learned that engaging one channel for too long can have negative repercussions. For an individual this could be overloading a single sense to the point of burnout, such as from listening to a favorite song too often. With anything, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
This can happen with other channels as well, including at the business level. The inherent stratification of the business world and its views on markets begets more stratified, narrowly-focused technology. Technology developed within discreet business channels can’t account for the rich complexity of our daily world. In these terms, technology is defined by the need implicit to the channel to which it is relevant. That it to say, the technology a business creates isn’t necessarily meeting a true need as defined by Maslow’s hierarchy, but one relevant within the channel it has defined. These technologies are often built off of the cultural expectations and contexts in play at a given moment within the channel. This context dependency means that these needs easily evolve with time, making technologies less relevant in time.
En Masse Consumption
Shifting from the business’ perspective of the market segment to the buyer’s perspective of the offered technology, too often individuals and larger groups don’t critically evaluate the technology offered within the context of their needs. This means that, with so many running blindly to participate in the next technology experience, the need has become an implicit assumption that is evolving to match the technology, rather than vice versa. This cycle manufactures needs that are built on the assumption of a previous technology’s existence. This isn’t inherently problematic—it’s how business and culture evolve. However, if these needs aren’t re-assessed within the larger, more complex context of one’s life, this cycle can quickly spiral out of control.
If someone doesn’t need or want something, there’s no reason for them to buy or participate in it. However, if they haven’t considered whether or not they have an interest in something, it’s much easier to simply do what people innately do: follow each other, buying the latest phone or installing the newest app. “How does this enrich life?” is not a question asked by either the business, which is succeeding based on its bottom line, or by consumers, who consider themselves to be succeeding because of their ability to fulfill cultural assumptions.
The Automobile As Illustration
Consider the need for an automobile and how its evolution is analogous to the smartphone or most other technologies. Initially, both new technologies enabled people to do something they’d never been able to do before. This created new opportunities for people, but possession of the new technology was required to do so.
However, in the case of the automobile, in the early adoption phase, the novelty and cost made utilization only viable in strategic instances. At this stage, it was a tool for the wealthy business class, not just anyone. As automotive technology slowly became more accessible, the thoughtful deployment characteristic to a high utilization cost was gradually lost. Ford’s Model T made automobiles accessible to the American middle class. It was then that the cost to take advantage of this opportunity was literally lowered. Once sufficiently ubiquitous, a new cultural norm was reached within this channel and the qualities that once provided a key advantage are now an assumed requirement. It’s easy to see how the American landscape has evolved to not only permit but require an automobile to get around. However, just because they are more accessible, doesn’t mean their utilization should be any less thoughtful.
In the context of trains, horses and bicycles, traveling from New York to Philadelphia by car made a lot of sense. It was a game changer to be able to travel that distance in less time, whenever you pleased (top speed of a horse is around 30 mph, and a Model T is 45 mph, not to mention the additional cost and care requirements of a horse). Soon though, as the presumption of car ownership was perpetuated, it wasn’t just that consumers needed cars for long distances, but for short ones too. Maybe ones for sunny days and ones for snowy days. Eventually our whole infrastructure was redefined by the new demands of this technology and we thought we were happy about it. And maybe we were, for a bit, but as the Hedonic Treadmill theory predicts, the effect was only temporary.
Now here we are, our suburban, car-oriented, dreams of the 50s and 60s haven’t panned out, and manufacturers are trying to understand why the new generation isn’t buying. Bicycles are seeing a resurgence as are city populations, and the love affair with the automobile is waning.
It could be that we have been engaging this channel for too long. Our automotive desires long surpassed the too-much-of-a-good-thing threshold and are now running on fumes, as we’ve expired every possibility for them to improve our lives and are left with the repercussions of a channel thoughtlessly abused. We don’t have to let our society go to those extremes, though, and we don’t have to simply do what our friends do; we can make our own choices and learn from the past.
Accelerated Adoption Demands Accelerated Evaluation
The automobile’s draw may be declining, but the en-masse uncritical infatuation with technology is just as vibrant as ever. The smartphone is our generation’s automobile—a revolutionary tool that is “…helping us be more human…” and only one piece of the larger digital technology movement. Digital tech is being pushed on us, hyped and forecasted to change the world, just as much, if not more than any previous technology (ok, maybe not language). And the businesses behind it all are constantly refining their offerings within these channels to make sure that it is easier for the buyer to experience the channel-relative need that will push them to purchase.
Consider the recent Apple event, and their new watch. According to John Edson, it is something “many of us knew we wanted…but we didn’t know exactly what for,” or a relative need uncritically desired. Edson even goes on to explain how, though it seems pointless, it will ‘win’ by becoming a “a compelling platform that sits at the center of an entire ecosystem of sensors, software and services.”
I’m not saying it isn’t or won’t be a significant advancement that can be good for humanity, but we simply need to be mindful of how we actually integrate it, and other technologies, into our lives. After all, it will will be harder to come back from changing ourselves into a fleet of cyborgs than changing our environment into a maze of suburbs.