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Digital Disruption Doesn’t Always Mean Digital Adoption

The French painter Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), upon seeing a Daguerreotype photograph for the first time, famously said “From today, painting is dead.” Hmm, didn’t quite work out that way mon pote, did it?

In 1894 Lord Kelvin (the guy who came up with the temperature scale that now bears his name) made a speech where, amongst other things, he predicted that radio “had no future.” Five years later, the first factory to manufacture radios on a commercial scale was opened. Just eight years after that, a radio could be found in 50% of homes in the USA.

Zero to 50% adoption in eight years.

Clearly Lord Kelvin screwed up big time. But then the guy ended up having a bit of a track record of not seeing the bigger picture. Yes, he came up with an important refinement to Carnot’s Second Law Of Thermodynamics. But he’s also the guy who maintained heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible, X-rays were a hoax, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was scientifically impossible since the Earth couldn’t possibly be as old as Darwin said it was.

History is littered with similar quotes from notable figures of the day. But there have been as many feet inserted into mouths with the advent of new technologies. The biggest recent example I can think of was a TV interview by the then-CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, who laughed at the launch of Apple’s iPhone. “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Oh dear…

“Rapid Adoption” Might Not Be All That Rapid

But let’s go back to those early 20th century technologies — the telephone, radio, TV, cars, planes, and so on. We’re often led to believe that today’s digital technologies are being adopted by the masses faster than any other. Yet some of those earlier technologies reached 50% penetration (the generally-accepted measurement yardstick for this kind of stuff) quicker than things like personal computers, or smartphones.

“Not true!” I hear you cry. “Smartphones are the fastest adopted piece of technology in human history! It’s true!

The problem with all those bar charts showing (for example) TV taking 30 years to reach 50% adoption, is that most of them are using the wrong starting-point. The date something was invented is usually very different from the date you and I could buy it. The first public demonstration of television was by John Logie Baird in 1926, but the first commercially manufactured electronic TVs didn’t appear until 1934. If you want to compare like with like, then you need to say that the internet was invented in 1969 and the cellphone in 1973.

But regardless of whether the naysayers have their dates right or wrong, there’s a bigger conversation at hand. The issue is less about the simple adoption of technology and more about how the technology pervades into our daily lives.

Technology Adoption Isn’t Speeding-up. It’s Fragmenting

If you look at the implications of their adoption in society, there’s an argument to be made that TV, radio, and the rest have had a far deeper and more profound societal impact than any digital technology has had (so far, at least).

Look at today’s over-hyped technologies — smart watches, the Internet of Things, 3D printers, virtual reality, and so on. These technologies are not only being adopted slower than PCs or smartphones. They’re currently on a shallower trajectory of mass adoption than the telephone, TV, or even microwave ovens. Not only that, but a fifth of smartphone users don’t use their device to connect to the internet. They’re using their smartphones in the same way they used their dumbphones — simply for making calls and sending texts.

Of course there’s no escaping the fact that the impact of digital technology, especially within sales and marketing, is expanding on pretty much every front. It will continue to do so, but there can be little doubt that its pace (in terms of adoption) is slowing. It’s important to take stock once in a while, and have a reality check. To not necessarily believe the BS. Digital technology is not changing society “at a rate that’s never been seen.”

It’s the societal adoption that’s the key driver here. Digital disruption may be seen as a revolution, but a revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new tools, it happens when society adopts new behaviors. The “problems” that smart watches or internet-connected thermostats are designed to solve, for example, are currently not perceived as being big enough problems for the majority of us to buy them. There’s no killer use-case.

Diversification Isn’t Acceleration

Furthermore the technology itself is not becoming more disruptive. Most of the so-called stars of what we colloquially call digital disruption are products or services built upon existing infrastructure, such as the internet or cellphone networks. As a result it’s easy to confuse acceleration with diversification.

I see all of this as not only a pity, but a missed chance. Technology has the potential to address inequality in opportunity across social and political divides. Instead we’re more interested in having our iWhatever delivered the same day — by a drone.

Real disruption, disruption equal to the social and behavorial impact brought about by technologies such as electricity or radio, needs to be about bigger things. About developing infrastructure, hygiene, food production, energy creation, or healthcare. Not Snapchat glasses or smart washing machines.

And if we are honest with ourselves, that’s simply not happening quickly enough.

( First published on the KEXINO Small Business Marketing Blog )



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Gee Ranasinha

Gee Ranasinha

Marketer, speaker, author, lecturer. Champion of BS-free small business marketing. Once shook Steve Jobs’ hand. All-round nice bloke.