2009-03-22

Change and Technology

I learned at a fairly early age that I "fear change." I had a lot of stress entering new schools or changing jobs, for example.

Eventually I also learned that I'm "risk averse," especially with respect to finances.

But some of my other characteristics do not seem to fit these labels. While I don't generally consider myself an "early adopter", I am very comfortatble with technology, gadgets, and the change that is propelling our increasingly "digital lifestyle." This doesn't seem consistent with my "fear of change."

I recently found the name for a pattern which is consistent with all of my self-observations. I hate to admit it, but just like almost everyone else in the world, I have a fear of the unknown. The difference is, the things which are unknown to me are different than what is unknown to many other people.

Although I'm very comfortable with the predictable nature of computers, I am very uncomfortable with social interaction with other people. I don't know how other people will react in a social situation, and when people start behaving aberrantly I don't know how to to debug them. The fact that I call it "debugging" is probably another indicator of where I'm coming from. Some of the strongest negative memories I have are related to social fauxes pas I've made in the past. The unknowns I'm afraid of almost always have to do with people and social situations. The fact that I fear failure in a social situation means I must care about this; I'm just not very good at it.

On the other hand, I know that many other people are afraid of the unknowns related with technological change. I know this, because businesses are throwing millions of dollars trying to stifle certain forms of technological innovation, and lawmakers are trying to pass laws against certain previously unanticipated uses of technology, even when the constituents I'm most familiar with and most sympathetic with disagree with these policies. From my perspective, there must be a very great fear of the unknown or fear of change driving these dangerous trends.

I don't remember exactly who made this observation, but it stuck with me: Generally, when businesses imagine potential uses of technological innovations, they tend to frame things in a way which benefits the business, but doesn't harm or significantly change their current business model. They imagine the current industry leaders will be able to take advantage of the benefits of new technology without significantly changing or impacting their current business practices.

The biggest current example of this is the electronic distribution of content (of any form), versus the incumbent physical object distribution industries: The Internet vs. Everyone Else. Making a copy of electronic content is essentially free, and that copy can be made at almost any remote location just as easily as where the original resides. On the other hand, books, magazines, photographs, movies, and even audio CDs have huge costs associated with them, both in making the copy, but also in moving, storing, promoting, and selling the physical objects themselves.

The incumbent content distribution industries saw the Internet from a long way away, but they imagined a world where they would benefit from the reduced costs of making copies for free, while still acting as a distribution oligopoly. Step 3: Profit!

The reality is somewhat different: reducing the cost of a copy to zero lowers the barrier of entry so far that it's a risk to incumbent businesses. Many middleman companies have become irrelevant, because content creators and the end users of content can now connect directly and bypass them completely. In my mind, this is a good thing, and we should embrace it. Unfortunately, the industries which no longer need to exist are bleeding money in an effort to resist change, instead of finding a successful place in the new world which is to come.

In recent months I've read some very good articles describing the changes which are currently going on, and some of them have positive suggestions for how incumbent industries might change to survive in the new reality.

Clay Shirky recently wrote an excellent article about how the newspaper industry has been dealing with technological change (or not dealing with it, as the case may be) in the last few decades. One quote (about the syndicated newspaper column, specifically) which really stuck with me, from the early 90's, rings as true today as it was then, but unfortunately no one was listening: "When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem."

Ian Rogers gave a talk to the Record Industry basically about how they need to get over it, and either change (with suggestions on how to do this) or die. Seth Godin gave a similar talk about the future of the music industry, to a bunch of music industry execs a year ago. They both seem to agree that the music industry is not failing, but the recording industry is; and, that this should not matter at all to the primary parties involved: the artists, and their fans.

I understand the Internet and the change it has brought, so I do not fear it. What I do fear is the reaction other people (or industries) are having to that change. It may be a painful change, but in the long run I think it'll be better for all people and the welfare of the planet itself, when we can all access the content we want to access, without the waste associated with the creation, distribution, and disposal of physical objects.

2 comments:

  1. It's refreshing how self-aware you are. Most people would just say, "I fear change" and leave it at at that, it's nice to read someone doing some reflecting and analyzing their character. It's a rare thing. Although not in RN school, were we have to "self reflect" in writing all the time...which is probably why I honed in on you doing it so well.

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  2. Well, I was thinking after we chatted the other day. I'm now inclined to call myself a "happy pessimist." Before a change, I expect the worst, and I'm always good at finding problems and potential problems with the future.

    But once the change comes, I tend to enjoy it.

    I expect my pessimism and fear of change sets my expectations too low, so I'm bound to be satisfied with the ensuing reality.

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