Guest Commentary: How to spot technology that will change lives

Apr 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Earlier this year reports surfaced that inventor Dean Kamen had developed a mysterious new product that would change the world. Dubbed “IT,” or “Ginger,” Apple CEO Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that once government officials had seen the machine, “you wouldn’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It’ll just happen.” It’ll just happen? My guess is that Mr. Jobs has never experienced the pleasure of asking his local municipality to fix a pothole.
So what was this hush-hush invention that had Steve Jobs and other tech luminaries so excited? Inside magazine ultimately discovered that “IT” is actually a two-wheeled hydrogen-powered scooter.
Let me repeat that: A scooter.
I wish Mr. Kamen the best of luck, but it may be some time before a scooter-whether powered by hydrogen or a size 91/2 Nike-changes our culture.
However, the buzz that surrounds “IT” comes from an awareness that every few years an emerging technology begins to reshape our culture. The new product liberates us to explore previously unseen opportunities in both our professional and personal lives. The behavioral shift leads to widespread change in the way we do business and relate to others.
Hand-held technology is a good example of a recent “culture changer.” Cellular phones and hand-held organizers enable us to effectively be in two places at once. Consequently, we are now more likely to travel for business and pleasure because we know we can keep things under control at the office and at home. We also are more likely to maintain contact with business associates and loved ones simply because we can, albeit through electronic communication rather than the personal touch.
The Four Rules
While doing research for my book, “TV dot COM: The Future of Interactive Television,” I discovered that every successful technology appliance has several things in common. There are underlying sociological and psychological reasons for why one product changes the way we live while another sits on the shelf. From that research I have developed “The Four Rules for Ultimate Tech Success.” If you are in the communications business, I think this guide will come in handy as you evaluate new technologies (such as hydrogen-powered scooters).
For a new product or technology to truly change our culture it must:
1. Fulfill an urgent need
Example: The microwave
In 1976, the microwave oven became a more commonly owned kitchen appliance than the dishwasher, reaching nearly 60 percent of U.S. homes. Why? The 1960s witnessed the rise of the women’s movement, and the early 1970s witnessed the rise of inflation. Ergo, Mom went to work. With both parents at the office, there wasn’t anyone around to cook a nice dinner in a gas oven. The microwave answered the call for a fast, simplified way to make dinner. It made our lives more convenient, and its success changed the culture in many ways, from reinforcing the two-earner household to arguably ending the traditional family meal.
2. Make our lives more appealing and entertaining
Example: The Walkman
The Walkman’s impact on our culture is immense. Do you recall ever seeing a jogger before the Walkman was launched? And today, do you ever see anyone jogging who’s not wearing a Walkman? So what came first? America’s fitness craze or the success of the Walkman? It’s a chicken-and-egg question. But there’s no doubt that millions of Americans were encouraged to jog or go to the gym because they could listen to their favorite tunes in solitude. It made exercising more appealing and entertaining.
3. Provide more options
Example: The mini satellite dish
I am old enough to remember the days when we had just three TV channels. How did we survive? But then cable TV came along with more than 50 channels. At the time, it seemed revolutionary. But all of life is mere evolution. Cable TV simply fueled a thirst for more, more and more. The mini satellite dish, which provided more than 200 channels, gave the TV viewer exactly what he wanted-more special-interest channels, more sports programming and more movies. However, it should be noted that cable TV operators are rolling out new digital boxes that will be able to match satellite channel for channel. Consequently, satellite TV companies (and cable TV) will soon add interactive services to their lineups in the continuing quest to provide more options.
4. Add convenience and be easy to use
Example: E-mail
Historians will write that there once was a time when people actually called each other on the phone or perhaps met for lunch. Today, most communication, particularly in the business world, is done via e-mail. The reason is because it’s so easy and convenient. Simply type your message under someone’s e-mail address and hit “Send.” What could be easier than that? (In fact, it’s almost too easy. Just ask anyone who has ever regretted sending an embarrassing or nasty e-mail to a co-worker or a friend.) The use of e-mail has forever changed our culture, and it has contributed to the success of the Internet itself. Many Americans first started surfing the Net because they felt more comfortable with the concept of electronic communications after using e-mail.
The next big things
So what new products and technologies will be tomorrow’s culture changers?
The personal video recorder certainly meets the four rules as does more sophisticated hand-helds that offer video and audio options. Video on demand, which allows you to instantly watch a new movie at home, will likely eliminate the weekend ritual of going to the video store. And what about Net-based video game consoles? Just sit back and watch how they change our culture. Because of their increasing realism, video games will soon be more popular among adults than among teens. Lastly, broadband connections installed on our PCs and televisions will unquestionably change many of our leisure schedules, increase our use of the Net and perhaps even end the digital divide.
But from this viewpoint, it’s hard to see a scooter fulfilling someone’s urgent need.
Phillip Swann is the editor of SonyStyle.com and the author of “TV dot COM: The Future of Interactive Television.”