There is no new. There is only now.
The concept of new is past its sell by date. The smart money these days is in useful.
I am not a tech expert. Far from it. If the dishwasher flashes a low-salt warning light it throws me into a panic. If I get an error screen on a device I feel mortal.
I have written a lot, though, about the impact that tech has on our lives. I can quickly get to grips with what things do, rather than the intricate detail of how they do them. Stories that motivate people are never about telling people how something works. They are always about showing people what they can do. There’s an analogy that I wheel out about once a week when I talk to a potential client about storytelling: “What are we selling here? Drills or holes?”
Most of my work looks at the what’s in it for the ‘customer end’ of the technology discussion – consumers and businesses alike. I’ve been captivated by technology’s capabilities since I watched Neil Armstrong plant his foot on the moon in 1969 as I sat cross-legged on an Australian classroom floor.
Since then we’ve been through wave after wave of advancement, too numerous to list, and all the while improving the lives of humans through a series of breakthroughs. Lately, though, it seems to me, that improvements, whilst near constant, have happened largely in the background. App updates, firmware updates, sensors in things – all happening quietly.
Today I wonder if we have arrived at the threshold of the age of the increment – and perhaps at the end of the technology revolution, when breakthroughs became the scene stealers. That is not to say that technology will not continue to deliver profound change. In fact, it will do so better and faster. It’ll just do it more quietly. Those tellies that we have these days are nearly as flat as they will ever be. Right now they’re showing off screens in Las Vegas that you can roll up like a sheet of paper. Once that’s done, it’s hard to see that there’s anywhere else to go. The pictures can’t get better – or if they do, they get better with no additional value, because our eyes won’t detect the difference. What will happen instead is what is already happening. The underpinning technology, the software, will keep getting better and these changes will be incremental and be happening all the time. Not so long ago, a software update was a big event that required us to help out. Now, for the most part, it gets on with the business of improvement quietly. Back to those tellies that we buy today: they bet better the longer we own them (up to a point) as they download new bits of software to improve themselves. Improvements happen everywhere – even in contexts where we might be resistant. For instance, when we visit a website, tracking software on the site, sometimes as much as 60 or so different bits of it, watch what we are doing and help for the most part to make the information we receive more useful for us – or at least help people do a better job at selling to us by checking our preferences. This is quiet and constant. We are not customers of Google or Facebook. We are products of these networks. A few years ago they felt like ‘things’ along with Twitter and LinkedIn. ‘Herdware’ I called them. And now they are as much a part of my life as walking down the road. I am accustomed to connecting with people on Twitter, chatting with them, reading them, being part of their public conversation about their thoughts, hopes, nightmares, jokes – and then meeting some in person and feeling that I have properly known them for ages. Herdware: holes, not drills.
The other thing that has happened is that technology has cast off from the dock. Mobile networks and wifi have enabled us to become hunter gatherers again. Instead of the theatre of the desktop we are now assisted by the device in our pocket. Mobility and ubiquity make technology something the helps us almost anywhere we are. On the trains faces are aglow with the light of a screen. At stations the piles of free papers that remain unwanted are a ghastly bar chart.
My point is that in the same way that the idea of the Industrial revolution gave way to life, so too will the idea of a technological revolution. The nomenclature is starting to sound a bit rusty. Almost everything we do is supported by technology. It is a constant. So, when a business describes itself as a technology business, because it has a website or an e-commerce platform, it no longer is because technology is no longer a point of distinction. Often, a chase for this nomenclature is driven by a desire to be first or modern or attractive to a VC. But the wording has lost its lustre because so many people are chasing it.
Right now we have the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. On retail parks we have electrical retailers. But are the words that are at the heart of those phrases really what takes us to those places like moths to a flame? I think we travel there for the ‘holes’ – the the convenience that the technology delivers rather than for the technology per se. Perhaps we should call it the Consumer Convenience Show instead.
A description that compartmentalises something only really makes sense when that something is confined to a niche in our lives, but technology isn’t any more. There are things that we do every minute of the day that are assisted by the exchange of data through the air around us. Technology is no longer optional. It is a human right. In mediaeval times they talked about Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Today, technology joins that elemental list.
So applying tech as a moniker makes little sense any more. Coincidence today is an algorithm. We do things under the constant and invisible assistance of processors, sensors, wireless networks. Technology is our outer bloodstream.
The same applies to ‘digital’. It grew, in my world anyway, from a need to draw a distinction with ‘analog’, a format that lacked the same level of compatibility, sameness and ability to avoid degradation in sharing. Digital came, temporarily, to be the new word for new. But it isn’t anymore. And here’s where we come to caveat emptor. If a product is defining itself as new rather than convenient it is probably fleecing you. New and better these days are a given. In a century in which the pace of change is exponential, there is no new. There is only now. New becomes old instantaneously. The trade needs to be based on convenience – and what it means for the consumer. Not on the specification or on the old magic of the buzzword.
Abandoning these distinctions lets us get on with a better discussion of the merits of the product or the idea. It restores the idea to its rightful place in the firmament – primacy. It also puts a halt to sales patter that fools people with the promise of the new, which is as ephemeral as the flare of magnesium.
The businesses that really succeed will focus their energy on the outcomes for the customer. Our refresh rate, as consumers, is now set to maximum. We live by the minute – and it is the continuing sense that something makes sense in our lives that keeps us engaged. Shiny surface is skin deep. It’s making things that matter in an enduring and personal way that will make all the difference – especially things that fit and connect with everything else. Technology is no longer a thing. It is everything.