When Karl Benz created the first vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine in 1886, little did he realize how his invention would change the world. Increased mobility transformed business, society and culture—and of course, it spawned a whole new industry. There is no shortage of such examples in history: technologies that have completely changed our world as we knew it, be it the telegraph, photography, or the light bulb. Today, new innovations are, once again, reshaping the way we live, do business and connect with each other, at an even faster pace.
Tom Standage, Digital Editor of The Economist and Editor-in-Chief of Economist.com, is a well-known authority on technology trends and the history of technology. He is constantly on the lookout for such technologies that will change the course of history. At any point of time, he maintains a list of 10 technologies that have disruptive potential. Standage is also the author of six books that examine the interplay of history and technology, including the forthcoming Writing on the Wall (October 2013), A History of the World in Six Glasses (2005), and The Victorian Internet (1998), a history of the telegraph.
During his maiden visit to Beijing, Standage took out time from his busy schedule to talk to CKGSB Knowledge’s Neelima Mahajan and Major Tian. In Part 1 of this interview, Standage talks about his pet themes of emerging technology trends and parallels between modern technology and historical precedents.
Technologies that will Change the World
Q. What are some of the big technology trends that you see on the horizon right now and how will they change the world as we know it?
A. At any one time I have a list of the 10 things that I am keeping an eye on, which is a sort of shorthand for the 10 things I think we should be writing more on in The Economist. I suppose the ones that spring to mind straight away are 3D printing and digital manufacturing, and that is something we have been banging on about for a couple of years–now people are saying it is overhyped. But I think there is something significant about it and I think there are quite a lot of misconceptions about it, in particular the idea that this will repatriate all manufacturing from China to America. I just don’t think that is going to happen. I think Chinese manufacturers are making very good use of this technology and it will make Chinese manufacturing more agile and faster. This is a very interesting technology and it’s not necessarily going to play out the way some people think it is. So that’s one of them.
Another would be self-driving cars. These are things that people thought were impossible 10 years ago and now there are lots of them. Most car makers are working on this and Google famously has a self-driving fleet of cars that have done more than half-a-million kilometers. This is the kind of technology that I think could spread much more quickly than people think. I think people are expecting that they won’t see this technology at all until they buy a car that’s completely autonomous. But what is happening is that cars are slowly becoming more autonomous. The cruise control gets cleverer and there are cars going on the market this year that can drive themselves in traffic in cities. They stay in lane and don’t crash into the car in front. So this is going to be a gradual process.
Another technology I am particularly interested in is low-cost genome sequencing. This something that used to cost a $100 million and is now getting down to a $1,000. That means you can sequence everyone at birth. That is going to be totally feasible within a decade. And already there are people who have strange conditions where they do genome sequencing on individuals in order to diagnose them. This is starting to become more widespread and there are all sorts of implications that could come from that. You would be able to diagnose people more easily, you would be able to work out which drugs would work in particular populations, and that sort of thing.
These sound like obscure things that only a few people are doing, but that’s what smartphones were 10 years ago. Ten years ago I had a Nokia that I could download apps onto and it had a camera, but it was just the beginning. Hardly anyone was downloading apps except for games in those days, and it is turned into this phenomenon in the past decade. That shows you how quickly it is possible for a technology to go from obscurity to ubiquity. So those are the three that I am probably looking at most closely at the moment, but I have a bunch of others as well.
(Watch the video below to see Standage’s picks for top technology trends)
Q. And which industries do we see being disrupted in a big way?
A. So just looking at those three, 3D printing potentially reshapes manufacturing, but it also changes the way you design products and the way you innovate. That could be very far-reaching. And you have the prospect of piracy of objects. So in the same way that Napster disrupted the media industry, you could have the same thing for physical objects. What happens when people start pirating Lego, for example? We don’t know and it may not happen because it may not be precise enough, but betting on the technology not being good enough is usually not a good idea.
If you look at the self-driving cars, that could be extraordinary. That could change the car industry. For a start, the cars would all have to be a different shape if you are not driving them anymore. Essentially you would just want a room on wheels. And then actually owning a car might not make any sense because you could just summon one using your smartphone and get in it and it would then take you somewhere. So then the whole model of car ownership might start to look a bit anachronistic. If you start thinking about that, then you can think about the amount of space that is wasted in a given city for parking. And then if you think about the number of cars on the road, if they are driving themselves you can fit a lot more on as they can be packed together. You can have junctions where cars don’t stop and you have streams of cars crossing. There are amazing things you can do. That would reshape the way cities look and it would also change the nature of car insurance, because you wouldn’t insure individuals any more you would have to insure the car makers. That would affect all sorts of industries.
And then if you look at the genome sequencing, that would completely undermine the health insurance industry. If you could accurately predict who is at high risk and who is at low risk, then the insurance industry model falls apart because the high-risk people have unacceptably high premiums and the low-risk people don’t really have to pay at all or there is no point getting insured. So the only way to resolve that unfairness is to have socialized medicine. So that changes the way the healthcare industry works.
These are technologies that have amazing potential to disrupt an awful lot of industries, and that’s what makes this so interesting.
History and Technology
Q. In your own words, you often use the past as a lens to look at the future. Talking of technology, what are some of the similarities or differences you have found between humans and how they react to—and adopt—modern technology?
A. Well essentially you get the same pattern again and again and again with a new technology, where it comes along and there are always some people who go, ‘Well this is great’, and they can see all the good things about it. Then you get another bunch of people who say, ‘Oh no this is terrible’, and they can only see the bad things about it. Usually there is some good and some bad, and then there’s this sort of negotiation about how the technology will be used and so on. In fact we develop an etiquette around the technology, which is itself a form of social technology. And then the process begins again with another new technology.
This just happens over and over again. So something like the telegraph inspired hype from people in the 19th century, saying, ‘This is going to lead to world peace and transform business’. It did transform business, but it didn’t lead to world peace. There are other people who say, ‘This is terrible, it’s going to increase the pace of life and we’re all going to have information overload’. There’s some truth in that as well, and yet we coped and then the telephone came along and people said this was terrible because people will never go out anymore, they will just ring up their friends.
When you look at something today like the adoption of the internet or of mobile phones or social media, you just see the same thing happening again. So what I like to say is that the technologies come and go, but they push the same buttons in our brains. And so that means you can very often learn a great deal looking at history if you look at how similar the reactions that technology inspires today are to previous reactions. That’s a very good guide to figuring out how we are eventually going to end up accommodating a new technology.
The most recent example is the etiquette around mobile phone use. When you can make a phone call anywhere, what is and is not acceptable? This varies according to different cultures. So in Japan you get five bars on your phone on the subway but nobody makes any calls because it would just be completely socially unacceptable to do that. In America, meanwhile, there is this game some people play where when you are in a restaurant, the first person to check their smartphone has to pick up the bill. So there are all these different ways that people respond and they are culturally distinctive as well. But essentially we are in the process of negotiating right now: how we negotiate smartphones and mobile computing into our lives. This is the same process we have had to go through with previous technologies.
Q. Can you pick just one example historically and relate it to a technology we have right now and just run us through the cycles of how that develops?
A. Another example would be about social media. I’ve been looking at the history of social sharing platforms and social media systems and they go back to I think about the Roman period. So in the Roman period you get enough literacy where people can actually write to each other and you can have this idea of a distributed community and a distributed discussion. You couldn’t really do it before that, but what the Romans had was a high degree of literacy and they had slaves. The slaves could copy documents for them and they could deliver them. And so you start to get this idea of being a participant in a broad discussion with people who aren’t physically present. That means if you look at the way that people reacted to this, you can very often answer questions about social media that we have today. So that one tells you that this isn’t particularly new and there’s a sort of timeless urge to connect with other people. We see this in the letters of Cicero who writes to his friend Atticus every day, and the messengers are going backwards and forwards. He just wants the connection–the same as when you check Facebook.
But my favorite example in this is probably to do with coffee houses in the 17th century. Coffee houses gave rise to a very familiar sounding complaint. Dons at Oxford and Cambridge University complained that students weren’t doing any work anymore because they were just going to the coffee house and reading newspapers and pamphlets and listening to gossip. All they were doing was sharing media. And so there were concerns expressed in the 1670s and 1680s that this was going to be the ruin of industry. That the young men coming up who were supposed to be the next generation of businessmen and leaders were all just wasting their time in the coffee houses. It’s very similar to the way that social networking today is denounced as a waste of time–‘social not-working’ (as) people like to call it sometimes. But, in fact, if you look at what came out of coffee houses, they were an incredibly fertile environment for innovation and collaboration because the tradition in coffee houses was that people of all social classes could go there. While it didn’t mean that this really happened in reality, but there was this coffee house tradition that anyone could talk to anyone else and you were encouraged to be polite. And this meant that ideas and people that otherwise would not have met could collide within coffee houses. There was an amazing amount of innovation that came out of them in the financial sphere. Lloyds of London was a coffee house originally, the London Stock Exchange was a coffee house and the Royal Society met in coffee houses. Principia Mathematica, the foundation of modern science written by Isaac Newton, was written to settle a coffee house argument. People would be more daring in suggestions they would make in a coffee house than they would be in a scientific lecture room or something like that.
I think we can expect the same sorts of things from social media today. Social media allows people and ideas to encounter each other far more easily than they could before. We see companies adopting social media internally to improve collaboration and innovation. We see companies building social media systems to connect them to their suppliers. And you just see people chatting with each other on Twitter. There have already been scientific projects that have come out of collaborating initially on Twitter and saying, ‘What about if we did this?’ and then they go and set something up. So again I think the coffee house example suggests that this react of ‘Oh, it’s just a waste of time’ from people who think that the new way of doing things is going to push out the old ways of doing things that are somehow more entitled to our time and more worth our while, this is sort of a timeless pattern.
Q. It’s interesting that you talk about social media because today it has become a very powerful force, as we have seen in revolutions like the Arab Spring. Do we have similar patterns in history?
A. Absolutely. One example I am particularly interested in is the Reformation–if you look at the way Luther’s message went viral, and the way the Catholic Church responded to it. Initially, they said, ‘Oh he’s just some blogger and we don’t have to say anything’. Just like when a big company is criticized on Twitter. When this happened five years ago, there were so many examples of companies that thought they didn’t have to respond and then it mushroomed. And that is exactly what happened with the Catholic Church and Luther.
Another very interesting parallel is with the circulation of poems in the decades leading up to the French Revolution. They had an incredibly corrosive effect on attitudes to the monarchy. The interesting thing about that is the monarchy and the secret police and so on were monitoring the circulation of poems and songs to see what public opinion was. They really thought they could stay on top of it and they were actually feeding their own poems in. They were trying to manipulate it, and for a while it looked as though that was working. But over a period of decades, it did actually corrode the authority and legitimacy of the monarchy and of the old regime. And so ultimately it did help bring about its downfall.