Researcher Sjoerd Bakker writes in Dutch financial newspaper Financieele Dagblad about the social spin-off effects of new technologies, a concept he researched in depth for his new book From Luxury to Necessity. Below an English summary of the article, the full text is available in Dutch on the website of Het Financieele Dagblad (paywall)
To understand the impact of a technological revolution we must not ask whether consumers use the new technology, but rather what they do with it
When we think about technological disruption, cases such as Kodak’s failure to switch to digital photography come to mind first. Tragic as it may have been for the company, its story is of minor importance when we consider the wider societal and economic impact of this revolution in photography. Much more than merely switching camera’s (and doing away with roll films), the true revolution, and indeed value, is in the number of photos we take and the ways in which we can share them with each other.
This brief example shows that technological revolutions are not so much about the substitution of one technology by another; instead, they are about fundamental shifts in everyday practices of consumers. New technologies change existing customs, of photography or commuting for instance, and they enable altogether new habits.
Great innovations of the past such as the railways, electricity and the automobile have each demonstrated such effects. The railways may have substituted stagecoaches, but they also have enabled the masses of consumers to engage in all sorts of new practices such as commuting, day tripping, and fun shopping in nearby towns. The automobile, in turn, substituted some of these forms of rail-based travelling, but it also led to completely new and unexpected habits such as automobile touring, eating out and new (and controversial) ways of dating.
As with digital photography, the real value of these technologies was found in the changing and new practices developed by consumers. In other words, to understand the impact of a technological revolution we must not ask whether consumers use the new technology, but rather what they do with it.