Beyond the Technology Frontier: Over-Reliance on Technology to Deliver the Next Big Thing Has Ultimately Rendered It Impotent

By Mainelli, Michael | European Business Forum, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Technology Frontier: Over-Reliance on Technology to Deliver the Next Big Thing Has Ultimately Rendered It Impotent


Mainelli, Michael, European Business Forum


Since time immemorial, quixotic characters have used lodestones to seek touchstones, philosophers' stones and rolling stones, all in search of a quick buck. In the 1967 film The Graduate Dustin Hoffman's character, Benjamin Braddock, is given one word of advice by his father's friend, Mr McGuire, 'plastics'. In the 70s the word was 'computers', in the 80s 'internet', in the 90s 'biotechnology'. Mr McGuire was right, following the trail of Bakelite, any number of plastics were big. Mr McGuire showed that, oddly, you could see the next big thing coming. The next big thing is virtually the 'present big thing' and it's always some new technology.

But can we look deeper for trends in the next big thing? In medieval times, the next big thing was religious--the Holy Grail, saintly bones, shrouds, fashionable pilgrimages or challenging quests; or sacrilegious--alchemy, witchcraft or freemasonry. In early modern times the next big thing was the newest spice or exotic land. In more modern times, the next big things were sociopolitical ideas such as Adam Smith's invisible hand as well as in its nemesis communism, let alone fascism, socialism and other ism's. Arguably, it is only in the past two centuries that technology has been accepted as a worthy, and consistent, lode for mining the next big thing. It has been a deep lode, from mass-produced steel to textile machinery to electricity to magnetism to railways to vaccines to plastics to atoms to computers to designer drugs to biotechnology.

To find the next technological big thing we can easily do the rounds of fanatics--as Churchill said, "a fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject"--and some of them are likely to be proved right at some point. Several next technological generations already exist in research laboratories. It's very small--quantum computers, smart dust, light-emitting organics. It's very large--hydrogen power, space colonisation/power/shading/elevators, the global nervous system. It's cheaper--micro-power, artificial food, disposable and foldable electronic paper computers. It's faster--on-demand layered machinery, real-time chip programming, bio-nano hybrid bugs. It's specific or user-friendly--personalised drug design, mentally-merged machinery, dynamic anomaly and pattern response. Barring the demise of the human race, we must assume these things are likely to arrive simply because they are possible. The necessary business skill is correct application and timing.

Here it comes again

Ahh, timing--this author was propounding the internet as the next big thing, though sadly in the '70s and not the early '90s; German and Austrian scientists were pushing liquid crystals, but in the 1880s; Mendel published in 1866. One important characteristic of the next big thing is that it must have the power to surprise at the time it starts to become big, but surprise only a little bit. Talk about quantum computing with most people today and their eyes glaze over, much as most eyes glazed in the early 90s when you discussed a worldwide network. It's not whether you can see it coming; it's whether your neighbour doesn't, but only by a little bit. Your neighbour must also share the perception that the next big thing has the power to disrupt the current order. The next big thing is about perception more than reality.

Sheridan (1998) points out that around 80 per cent of technological forecasts are just wrong. New technologies take decades to be commercialised, not years; customers change slowly but change is sudden; the only law is the law of unintended consequences. So surprise is not to be expected. Moreover, technological change has become more predictable. Some, such as policy institutes, publishers, contract researchers and even this author (Parker and Mainelli, 2001), make a living out of technology commercialisation. Between the sigmoid curve of technology take-up and the portfolio management of large intellectual property holders, technology is losing its power to surprise. …

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