The creation of an entirely new product category is a very high-risk strategy. Innovation analysts have underlined the consistently high rate of failure of new products in most industries — never mind new categories. Instead, most new applications involve piggybacking new technologies onto existing needs and structures. Taxi to Uber, phone based takeout orders to integrated Deliveroo order-delivery systems. Some studies claim that new product hit rates in industries such as fast-moving consumer goods reach only 20 % on average
But since 1974 and the publication of “A Theory of Interdependent Demand for a Communications Service” the landscape has changed. We have seen an increase in both interest and investment in ‘network effects’ which create so-called “bandwagon markets” in which users/customers/consumers of some types of service are dragged in by existing relationships . Such markets have dynamics that differ from those in conventional products and services. The belief system regarding these investments is that bandwagons are both difficult to get started and difficult to control once they are. “Once enough consumers have gotten on a bandwagon, however, it may be unstoppable.”
But what does unstoppable mean? Over the last quarter century, we have moved an incredible number of services to the web and devices. These have ‘taken’ users ‘out’ of the ‘real’ world. Or at least created a new ‘merged’ world in which the users interaction with the web extends their performance in some- perhaps- critical ways.
This is, of course, a given. If you call your partner in Fresno from Mozambique using your iPhone, and assuming network service availability, your performance has been extended dramatically.
But performance as a construct is interesting. The same class of extension can be experienced by launching a nuclear missile and killing tens of thousands of people in a city that is ten thousand kilometres away.
But is it perhaps too simplistic an argument to suggest that our technology has outstripped our “humanity”- whatever that may be- in terms of some metric of concern for our fellow human beings?
Intermittently, we can hear increasing concerns about capitalism. The term ‘the system’ has come to signify some kind of sociotechnical-economic entity which ‘oppresses’ us. The term implies that something (not just economic exploitation but ideological alienation, militarism etc.) has built up a momentum of its own and become a self-propagating force. This ‘system’ seems to have been disconnected from rational control because we cannot identify the type of cause-and-effect relations in which humans- like us- have a part.
This — often unexamined model- lives in the heads of a lot of people. They are galvanised by the thought that such a ‘system, is consuming the society which produced it.
Systemic critiques of capitalism have been posed at many points of its history, but has special significance today, entering as we do a crisis of a new type where three systems — human technological and ecological — come into conflict. Many seem to feel that capitalism now consumes not just society itself, but its physical and social environments, to a point where none of them can regenerate.
And, of course, the pandemic which we have experienced over the last year or so has been interpreted as a message from nature telling our species that we must change. But if the vaccine succeeds in eradicating the coronavirus, will it be seen as another victory for the unstoppable forces of technology
Systems are not fated to acquire a runaway ‘bad’ dynamic, it is possible for them to function sustainably in economic, social and technological terms. To act upon this, we generally adopt two complementary conceptual approaches: The Green movement recognises the external resource boundaries, while Marxism and related approaches to social organisation such as Anarchism emphasise the systemic drive from within which pushes against them.
John Locke called trust the ‘vinculum societatis’- the glue that holds society together.
But technology is increasingly the glue that holds our current society together. And is that glue strong or adaptable enough? Or do we need something more? And is it enough to call for social, economic and political reform without an effective integrated model? You might trust me, but believe me I do not trust you on any device or social and communicative platform which you might care to mention
So do we need a new product category- or set of product categories- which can replace the way in which individuals- and groups- form themselves and connect as part of the community we used to call civilisation?