Technology doesn’t change everything

With everyone caught on as to how profoundly technology is changing so much in our lives, it is easy to mis- and over-attribute its influence on market dynamics, to see it helping where it hurts, and to forget the timeless market dynamics that still pertain. Analyses this week of its use in healthcare, entertainment and society demonstrate how confusing attribution and understanding can be.

The healthcare example

Gigaom’s Derrick Harris has a fantastic article this week on some of the innovation possible with Apache Spark, including the use of the technology to save lives with rapid DNA sequencing through in-memory processing. It is one of number of examples where applying newly-feasibly levels of IT in medicine enables breakthrough treatment for patients. Beyond this example of big data isolating bacteria, a look at the ASME’s top five medical innovations of 2013 illustrates how the typical advantages of new technology in scanning, smaller size, sensors, and robotics have enabled new approaches to melanoma, migraines, diabetes and checkups, respectively.

The Affordable Care Act, from its dysfunctional exchanges to its promulgation of endless, federal regulations and planned, panoptic enforcement of centrally enforced best and most cost-effective treatment practices, is, in this analyst’s opinion, an example of IT innovation that doesn’t work—likely on the bases of cost, outcome, or individual patient or provider experience.

In between these medical and bureaucratic extremes are many applications, such as mobile health monitoring, exercise, and diet apps that have the capacity both to empower individuals to positive medical result—and to subject them to oppressive levels of health system and governmental monitoring. These ‘healthcare management’ applications may look promising, but in bureaucratic hands they can also be exploited to counterproductive ends.

An example in the entertainment industry

The Daily Beast has a commentary suggesting ‘The five lessons the faltering music industry could learn from TV’. Quibbles could be made with the piece, as they are in the comments, with the apt and universal applicability of all the points made in support of the central thesis, but the underlying argument is provocative. Perhaps the music industry isn’t stuck in the vise of an inevitable destruction of monetized value, given the Internet’s ability to deliver content free or nearly so. Perhaps instead the response of the television industry to create higher quality shows for which people are willing to pay subscriptions, as well as the development of ever-better TV technology, does provide a model for the music business.

Then again, cable TV has had the benefit of the forced bundling of channels and other regulatory advantages. People may also become set in their musical preferences with peak consumption when young, but still be hearty consumers of stories throughout their lives; and they consume music differently than they do visual media. Perhaps more significantly, the peril of underestimating the audience has long been a lesson learned and relearned in entertainment and the arts. William Golding famous warned against it in writing for film. Plato addressed it in Aristotle’s Poetics. Theater greats such Hammerstein, Rodgers, Hart, and Kern labored for decades to take musical theater beyond targeting the lowest common denominator, and it never flourished so much before or since. The lesson there is that the true common denominators in art are not that low. (One could argue such an effort and reminder is needed in musical theater and other arts again.)

While commercial television arguably has never had so much sophisticated programming, it likely has never had so much low-brow programming either. It simply has a lot of programming. But, the principles of niche and segmented marketing of course still pertain. As to the quality of delivery technology, music has had its swings of the pendulum, with transistor radios transforming the ‘60s, new hi-fi systems dominating the ‘70s, back to low-cost mobility with Walkmans and MP3s, etc. As TV moves to more Internet and mobile delivery, it too will likely experience drops in delivery quality.

Still, the Daily Beast article has merit, and there are likely lessons in television that could be transferred to a troubled music industry.

Broadening healthcare to government

Michael Barone this week makes an argument with the healthcare example that government by its nature was better at aping the business organizations of the industrial era than it is now those of the digital age. I’d quibble here and suggest that the largest industrial and late-industrial age bureaucracies (e.g., the Soviet Union) tended to collapse of their own weight as well. Even when industrial-age governments were efficient (e.g., Mussolini’s trains ran on time), they were oppressive and counter to the larger productive force of individually-inspired motivation and actions. People instinctively recognize the same dynamic when NSA spying or overregulation of technology and the Internet threaten the potential of the digital age as well. Technology no doubt can make overreach more invasive and worse.

For the enterprise

A couple of takeaways from these examples could include the following:

  • Significant new value can be found in the likes of raw data power, miniaturization, sensors, peer networking, mobility and robotics that new technology is making possible; but the dystopian misapplication of that same technology is often just a step away—and not even recognized as the enabling elements are put into place. There is probably more legitimate value to be gained from technology applied to the ‘medical’ (customer value) as opposed to ‘healthcare’ (bureaucratic) end of any industry sector.
  • More is attributed to unique dynamics of new technology than is really so. Music industry executives are likely to see their troubles as the inevitable result of new technology, but relative success stories such as the TV sector currently are probably correctly attributed to both the effective use of new technology—and adherence to timeless, traditional marketing, business and, unfortunately, rent-seeking principles.
  • Social ills and solutions are no newer or older than the common human inclinations. They thus likely predated and will outlive any new technology in use or on the horizon. The scale and speed with which good can be turned to bad is likely amplified with pervasive, networked IT, however, which does call for new levels of caution. But new technology doesn’t change everything—including human nature.

(Gigaom Research consumer curator Paul Sweeting has more relevant coverage on television and Gigaom Research analyst Mark Mulligan has more music industry coverage here,  as well as the music industry audience targeting and product format debate here.)