William Preece, in 1878: "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."
It's really hard to predict the impact of a new technology on a society. Many things that were meant to change the world (the segway) didn't and so many things people had no idea they "needed" all the sudden prove to be invaluable. When I was a young IT guy I was asked if this new email system was a "toy", and why would I type a message instead of walk down the hall or call. And Yet that's exactly what we do now, we send electronic messages many times to people we are in clear view of. But why? I propose it's the marginal benefits of technology that we just overlook.
Marginal benefits are so hard to see or quantify. Take for instance the automobile, at first we might say, what major advances have been made in the automobile in the past 50 years? They still get us from work to our kids soccer game so why hasn't something better come along? Well the Model T was about $22,000 in today's dollars, about the same cost of a new sedan today. For that though we get more comforts, like AC, safer cars and cars that go faster. Most importantly cars last longer than they ever have. They are more reliable than ever. The average car on the road is now over 10 years old. This means we can get to work without spending money on repairs, it means we can get places reliably and quickly. Long lasting cars also means that there is a used car market whereby you might be the 3rd or 4th owner of a car. This pushes the price of used cars into the affordable area for all members of society. More cars, more people who can contribute to society, more people to buy goods and services, and visit friends and family. The automobile has advanced and has helped to contribute to our GDP, through small advances over and over.
The same can be said of other technology specifically what happens on the internet. Could I mail something instead of email it? Of course but it wouldn't get there as cheaply or quickly or more importantly without much effort. Could I go to the store and buy a new book instead of download it? Again yes but I'd probably buy fewer books, and thus read fewer books and be less informed. How about buying a new car? I mean I still have to go buy those right. Only now with the internet to I have almost "perfect information" I can know what I should pay, what the reliability of the model is and without leaving my chair know if there are any for sale within 200 miles of me. This saves me time, money and makes me happier about my purchase. I can now take those savings and invest or spend in different ways. Almost every purchase can be enhanced by having access to the internet. Sometimes its ease, sometimes price, and sometimes it's just making a smarter decision. All of this happens millions upon millions of times every single day all across the world. The marginal benefits are hard to see but they multiply and compound over time creating more productivity.
Even the oft maligned social media channels have marginal benefits. It's easy to point to stories that show marriages being destroyed or jobs being lost as a result of social media. The part that's hard to see is those friendships which begin online and later become "real life relationships". It's hard to see that millions of times a day people feel more connected to friends, family and co workers. It's hard to see that almost 20% of job seekers found their job because of Facebook. It's hard to see that you can maintain more connections than have ever been humanly possible. All marginal benefits, little bits of benefit that multiply compound and add up over time, creating a sense of more connectedness and shared experiences.
The title of this Blog was Lean, Nudge, Push, Change, Transform, primarily because I think the best changes are almost imperceptible. They take place as little changes, one a time piled on top of one another. I believe that our world is getting better, day by day through advances in technology of all kinds. Any advance in communication will undoubtedly make lives better for us, mobile, social, photos, news. The world is getting better and it's exciting that it is happening at such a breakneck pace, even if it happens in an invisible marginal way.