November 6, 2011
Around the turn of the millennium, fresh out of j-school and a little pompous and naive you might say, I predicted that the best chance the world could hope for to close the competitive gap with the US is if humanity entered a future that valued technology less. The likelihood of that seemed real because wouldn’t there inevitably be a limit to the utility and satisfaction derived from technology? Wouldn’t, for instance, the speed of computing reach a point whereby any improvement would be indiscernible and thus undesirable? By extension wouldn’t technology’s gift of easier and cheaper in ever greater quantity reach a tipping point to make life feel complicated and expensive? Wouldn’t this lead more than just Luddites to revolt?
News last week that China and Russia have stolen American technology through the internet as a form of national policy is a reminder of just how prized technology still is and how large the gap between the US and its closest rivals remains, while around us, from smart phone convergence to the hard sciences, technology is enhancing our lives like never before.
But at the same time we’re learning that technology can just as well hinder progress. And so we see growing interest in areas of study like ecopsychology. Runners are chucking their state-of-the-art sneakers for foot gloves, sandals or just plain bare feet. The Boycott Banks movement seeks to weaken the technology-infused derivatives market and shift allegiance to less technology-reliant, customer-run credit unions.
Laboratory-concocted processed foods, once a cherished symbol of convenience if not health (remember yoghurt-covered, fat-free granola bars?), have inspired the whole and organic food movement. Even the advertising industry, which has formed a near perfect union with digital technology in its celebration of creative deceit, is seeing more stripped-down, candid-style ads with unscripted-looking people. The unspoken aim: to cultivate trust in a world of complex bargains and technology-backed guile.
In sum, both technology and a lack of it are proving to be engines of growth as we reassess and refine our sense of progress. This, by the logic of my turn-of-the-century prophesy, should help level the playing field between the Rest and the West, as tradition and simplicity find greater value in the global marketplace.
And yet far from being slaves to technology many US companies are shifting with the times to capitalize on the back-to-basics ethos. American sneaker brands like New Balance are leading the minimalist shoe movement. The US’s organic food industry, worth $26.7 billion, up from $1 billion two decades ago, has hatched thousands of American entrants. America’s entertainment industry continues to score big with big-budget, special-effect programming and at the same time meet growing audience demand for unscripted-, documentary-looking fare, from reality TV to found-footage films like Paranormal Activity 3, which with its hand-held look and feel set a record for the biggest horror movie opening ever last month.
As Wired magazine noted, “The world has sped up, become more connected and a whole lot busier. As a result, what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished.”
American businesses and entrepreneurs are adapting to this evolution, in some cases by leveraging technology, in other cases by deemphasizing or abandoning it altogether. In other words – and this is something my j-school prophesy missed – it’s not just technological mastery that accounts for America’s competitive edge but the culture’s embrace of change in a fast-changing world.
This won’t ensure that America stays on top, but it’s one more piece of evidence that closing the gap with the US is likely to be harder than the doomsayers would have you believe.