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CHIPS Articles: The Lazy Person's Guide to Disrupting Technologies

The Lazy Person's Guide to Disrupting Technologies
By Dale J. Long - July-September 2009
What does it take to change the world? A few things come to mind: the discovery of fire, the wheel … and a realization that the universe is a much bigger place than we originally thought. However, since CHIPS is an information technology magazine, we will limit our discussion here to the disruptive information technologies that have transformed cultural models, social structures, economic systems and living conditions in unexpected ways.

Disruptive technologies have four primary characteristics.

• They change the environment, usually in multiple areas simultaneously: personally, socially, at work, at home, and with rippling unexpected side effects.
• Their environmental changes generate changes in behavior, which may be conscious or unconscious, in a growing fraction of the population.
• The combination of environmental and behavioral changes creates new paths of least resistance that turn a disruptive technology into an essential technology used by a majority of the target population.
• The unintended side effects of disruptive technologies are frequently more disruptive than the effects associated with their primary purpose. Truly disruptive technologies generally cause changes well beyond the boundaries of their original purpose.

Disruptive IT — the First 5,000 Years
To give us a frame of reference, we will start by looking at information technologies that disrupted the world long before computers.

The earliest form of IT began with the advent of writing around 3100 B.C. Painting pictures on cave walls was also a milestone, but pictures of early humans hunting are considered illustrations, whereas, writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols.

Two subsequent disruptive technologies were both more efficient ways of producing written language: the printing press in about 1440 and improvements to the typewriter in the mid-1880s.

The printing press automated, to a degree, the process of reproducing copies of religious and literary works. Before the printing press, the most literate group in Europe were clergymen who were the foremost copyists of the day. The printing press took book copying out of the hands of the clergy, which contributed to changes in the political and religious landscape by making it much harder for anyone in authority to control or censor what was being written.

As use of the printing press spread across Europe, thousands of written works became available to the population writ large, generating a tremendous rise in literacy. This explosion of mass literacy gave European nations an enormous competitive advantage and facilitated their colonization and conquest of much of the rest of the world, since, historically; highly literate nations are able to prevail over nations with low rates of literacy.

Other side effects of the invention of the printing press were the development of copyright laws and the importance of authorship and intellectual capital.

While the typewriter originally created just one copy at a time, it allowed faster personal creation of standardized, legible documents, filling a niche not quite covered by the printing press.

The wired telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse in 1835, was the most significant advance in long-distance communications for one simple reason: It was the first time we had a reliable means of communication that traveled faster than we did.

Before the telegraph, it would take days or weeks to send a message across the United States. With the telegraph, it took mere minutes, and once trans-Atlantic cables were laid and the first telegrams were exchanged between America and England in 1858, telecommunications began to "shrink" the world.

As the 19th century ended, the telephone, invented in 1876, and the radio, invented in 1891, completed the basic telecommunications framework that would dominate information technology for many decades.

The telephone was disruptive because, unlike the telegraph, you did not need special training or to learn Morse code to use it. The telephone opened up communications technology for long-distance social and business contact.

In business offices, the telephone, together with the typewriter and adding machine, speeded productivity and simplified the handling of increasing correspondence and records. Improved communications in the early 1900s pervaded American life and led to the expansion of social and intellectual activities.

Progress led to a thirst for knowledge and better way of life throughout the entire country. Radios were one of the first important hybrid technologies, an advance that combined two or more earlier technologies in a single device with a newer, enabling technology. In the case of the radio, it combined aspects of the telegraph (Morse code) and telephone (analog voice transmission) with wireless transmission for portability. Interestingly, the popularity of radio was a huge blow to newspapers. Not only did the radio provide news and entertainment, but many advertisers migrated to this new medium.

The last great mass advance in analog IT was the television, displacing the radio in popularity, and yet another hybrid that added the transmission of moving pictures with sound. The analog age of IT was soon overtaken by a technology that also evolved from the telegraph on a different path: the digital computer.

The Digital Age
About the same time that the television was becoming a household staple during the 1950s, the first digital computers arrived on the scene. While the computer took a long time to influence the daily life of the average person, its effects have been far-reaching and life-altering for everyone around the globe.

Computers spawned the development of networks, personal computing, and all the various applications that dominate our current work environment and many of our social interactions.

As we have previously covered a brief history of personal computing in CHIPS (four articles in the Summer 2002 through Spring 2003 issues), we will not spend a lot of time on those details. What we will do, though, is examine some of the migration paths and relationships between disruptive digital technologies and their analog predecessors.

Virtually every influential technology we use today is derived in some way from previous technologies or processes. Personal computers are hybrids that include the typewriter, television and calculator. The cellular phone is a hybrid of the radio and the telephone. The photocopier is a hybrid of the camera and printer.

There is also a functional relationship between the Internet and the postal service. At its core, a postal service is essentially a structured packet network, though with physical packets and manual transportation. While the Internet operates billions of times faster than snail mail, in many ways, the basic model for the Internet resembles the model used by Benjamin Franklin when he established the U.S. Postal Service in the 18th century.

The end result of this evolution are devices like the BlackBerry and iPhone that include the most common modern IT functions in a single, portable device, albeit with some trade-offs associated with screen size, ergonomics and battery life.

Unintended Consequences
Are the Internet and the World Wide Web the modern equivalents of writing and the printing press, revolutionizing phenomena for the masses giving those who employ them competitive advantage? It would seem so. The last 20 years of business history is littered with the remains of companies and other organizations that either underestimated or overestimated the power and influence of computers and networks. But those effects are a direct result of the application of the technology.

Disruptive digital technology has also had some important side effects. For example, migrating document preparation from typewriters to word processors resulted in a change in expectations. The task of creating a document with a pen or typewriter was a single event. Corrections were laborious and could require retyping the entire document. Word processors, on the other hand, made changes easier.

E-mail generated disruptions on several levels. Initially, some people saw e-mail as a potential replacement for postal mail. While it has arguably cut into the post office’s revenue, it has not put the U.S. Postal Service out of business.

What e-mail did, in combination with the computer, was give people a much more prolific way to exchange a larger volume of informal communications.

The most radical effect of e-mail was on organizational power structures. Before e-mail, power and knowledge in most organizations were held exclusively by executives who worked face-to-face or over the telephone. Written communications were highly structured and tightly controlled. E-mail shifted that balance of power by giving people at lower levels an easy way to communicate without regard to location or distance.

Another unintended technology side effect is 24/7 access made possible by the pager, cell phone and, subsequently, the BlackBerry. Yes, we now have 24/7 access to information, but the other side of the equation is that other people expect to have 24/7 access to us. This has radically changed the work and life dynamic for a lot of people.

Turning the Tide
We still have the opportunity to learn lessons from previous examples of disruptive technology to try and turn new ones into controllable tools for shaping our environment, instead of uncontrollable waves of change that drag us into their undertows and riptides.

There are some new technologies entering the IT environment that may offer us some relief from the excesses of our past and present. Before we discuss them, we should have a framework for how to assess their potential.

When considering a new technology, start with its output. What specifically does it produce, and what relationship does its products have with things you are already producing? To use email as an example, at a basic level, it produces correspondence. When we know the outputs, we can then try to predict outcomes by comparing how the new technology functions with how the old technology functions in five key areas: cost, speed, quality, adaptability and satisfaction.

The first four can be compared quantitatively. Does the new technology cost more or less? Does it produce results faster? Do the products differ in content, longevity, accessibility or usability? Does the new system replace more than one old technology?

Most importantly: What can the new technology eliminate? If we do not discard something when we add something, we may only compound our problems.

Satisfaction can be a funny thing to pin down. Why will people buy designer products that do not measure up when compared with ordinary items? I will, for example, never understand why anyone would buy a collar for a dog that costs more than my car. Satisfaction based on function I can understand.

Satisfaction based primarily on status is a delusion that only the wealthy or a wannabe can indulge.

The Next Wave
So, what is on the disruptive technology horizon? Here are my current three picks for technologies that will lead the next wave of change.

First on my list is public key infrastructure, also known as PKI. This is not a new technology; however, people have been trying to figure out how to implement PKI on a large scale to establish digital identity for more than 15 years. There are some applications in use today, but no common standard that would allow establishment of a single digital identity to replace the current de facto standard for uniquely identifying a citizen of the United States: the Social Security number.

Social Security numbers were never intended to be used as a universal identification number, but became one due to the absence of any other identifier. Someone will eventually develop a digital alternative, and it will change the world.

Second is another old favorite in a new wrapper: thin client applications. We moved from mainframe-based systems to desktop office automation software decades ago because we saw personal computers as a less expensive alternative. Early attempts at Web-based office applications that tried to duplicate thin clients functionality were unsatisfying on a variety of levels, so we still use thick client software that can be expensive to license and keep up-to-date.

However, Google Docs may finally be the harbinger of Web-based office software that breaks the “everything on the workstation” paradigm.

Google Docs is a Web-based set of applications for word processing, presentation and spreadsheets.

My daughter and her 8th grade classmates do all of their homework in Google Docs. It does not matter where they are, what computer they are using, or what browser they use. They work on the same document while collaborating in real time without having to buy and use the same software or cluttering their hard drives with multiple versions of the same project.

Do Google Docs applications have all the functionality of the office software most of us use? No.

Do Google Docs applications have the functionality people need for most tasks? So far, they appear to work for my daughter and her friends — and do most of what I need, too.

Google Docs, and similar applications, can reduce storage requirements, facilitate collaborative work and, until someone starts charging for the service, eliminate the cost of buying and maintaining software applications. However, I do not see government agencies using these commercial applications any time soon because there is no guarantee of continued service or support, and there are understandable security concerns.

However, if the opportunity arose to license similar, supported Web-based applications within organizational networks, it could revolutionize information management for organizations that adopt this paradigm.

Also, bear in mind that in 20 years my daughter’s generation will have brought the work habits they are developing in school into the mainstream of the workplace. If we do not make the move to thin-client applications, they likely will.

Thin client applications may be a major building block that allows another new technology to take hold: the netbook.

Netbooks are inexpensive, bare bones portable computers that are larger and more ergonomically friendly than a BlackBerry but smaller and more portable than a full-sized laptop.

If you want a small, lightweight portable computer that connects wirelessly to networks for e-mail, Web browsing and simple document preparation, Google Docs could be one of the capabilities that makes the netbook a viable alternative. Add Voice over IP telephone service and now you have a device that can challenge the current crop of computers and smartphones.

The last technologies to keep an eye on are social media: Facebook and Twitter. Both are rooted in established social processes but are being accelerated by the same forces that made e-mail the juggernaut it is today.

Facebook helps maintain relationships, reinforcing and strengthening both virtual communities of practice and social networks. It is only at the beginning of its evolution, and it will be interesting to see where it goes over the next five years.

Twitter, on the other hand, just seems like a way to send short electronic postcards to everyone subscribed to your “tweets.”

Yes, it is possible to use it like a mass paging system to pass time-sensitive pieces of useful information to a large number of people. I just have trouble taking a technology seriously when a million people apparently subscribe so they can read what someone ate for breakfast.

Twitter may also contribute to “bullet-point syndrome,” a state where people eventually lose the ability to write complete paragraphs consisting of grammatically correct full sentences because they spend most of their time writing short bullet points or computerese slang.

Final Thoughts
In the end, the path of least resistance usually determines which technologies win. However, this does not always mean that the “better” technology will win.

As an example, I offer the Dvorak keyboard designed to be more ergonomically friendly and allow faster typing than the familiar QWERTY keyboard. Why do we still use the QWERTY which was intentionally designed to slow down typists to keep them from jamming the keys on manual typewriters? Because by the time the Dvorak keyboard came along, QWERTY was too well-established to be displaced, even by a superior keyboard layout. The path of least resistance was to stick with what everyone knew.

Sometimes, it pays to hold on to what works and watch other people suffer on the “bleeding-edge.” Sometimes, however, clinging to the familiar only makes the transition that much more wrenching when a new technology changes the world around us. The trick is being able to recognize the difference.

Until next time – Happy Networking!

Long is a retired Air Force communications officer who has written regularly for CHIPS since 1993. He holds a Master of Science degree in information resources management from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He currently serves as a telecommunications manager in the Department of Homeland Security.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.

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