Three Myths about Technology and Change


Share on LinkedIn

At a steamy open-air market, a young street vendor pushes a heavy wooden cart weighted down with forty 12-inch blocks of ice. He urgently calls out to others to buy his inventory before it melts into worthless water. A scene from a Charles Dickens novel?

No. Actually, I saw it just last week in Hyderabad, India. “He sells the ice to the other vendors,” my driver told me. “It’s how they keep everything cold.”

We have kept things cold that way for generations. Wouldn’t you think that somewhere in Korea, Samsung has a team of engineers feverishly working on a mini-fridge for him to sell? I wouldn’t bet on that happening anytime soon. I predict the ice block vendor will continue to need his ice tongs.

India has rich examples of old—even ancient—technology working alongside the new. Ice refrigeration in place of electric freezers. Human-powered rickshaws next to motorized ones. Manually cranked sugar-cane mills next to machines that are power-driven. Rickety shacks made from recycled garbage, lacking electricity and running water, sharing land with gleaming office buildings containing every modern amenity.

For those of us used to ephemeral information technologies, these juxtapositions boggle the mind. When was the last time you saw anyone share a file by passing around a 3.5 inch diskette? The iPhone was introduced just five years ago, in June, 2007 (I’m compelled to include the month as well as the year). Since then, how many people do you know who haven’t upgraded their iPhone at least once? And some people already clamor to ditch the e-prefix on all things digital, saying it’s an anachronistic waste of a perfectly useful letter. No more e-commerce, e-learning, or e-fulfillment. Today, Internet technology saturates nearly everything we do, so why bother using a cryptic, uninformative adjective? Good riddance to the hyphens, too.

If our only experience with technology adoption was the iPhone or iPad, we could be forgiven for coveting all things cutting edge, latest and greatest, and next wave. But compare the iPad to RFID technology, and we have a much different story. When commercial applications for RFID accelerated in the ’90’s, visionaries predicted the inevitable end of the retail barcode. Today, those ubiquitous stripes are very much alive, forty years after the first UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode was scanned on a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. The visionaries overlooked two things: barcodes work really well, and they’re dirt cheap to produce and read. So much for rapid change! Some technologies prove stubbornly durable, impermeable to our persistent inventive genius and our nagging, creative hype to change, replace, upgrade, or die.

In our technology-driven culture, we give fawning admiration to nascent innovation, adhering to techno-rhetoric peppered with gratuitous words like Disruptive! Next generation! and Revolutionary! But the up-front hype should invite skepticism. Can these proclamations be made before gaining historical perspective? Of course, that’s a rhetorical question, because odd timing has never stopped marketeers from practicing their trade. Like many popular beliefs, when we hear the same things often repeated, we stop questioning our own assumptions, and those of others. That understandable human characteristic has encouraged salespeople and marketers to charge down pitted sales roads with warrior zeal, only to scratch their heads in bafflement upon reaching the end, no closer to the sale than when they started. “Crud! What happened? Our product is fantastic! No decision sounds so tepid and imprecise.”

Much of the angst comes from three myths about change and technology:

1. Myth: Things are changing faster than ever. Fact: This is actually un-provable. Experts and others have alarmed us with this incantation every year since I can remember. Things are changing. I buy that. But the faster than ever part bugs me. What? Who? How? We should either be more circumspect, or preserve what precious little shock value remains by fining anyone who makes that claim in an even-numbered year. I suspect the statement’s popularity results in part from things having a convenient vagueness that’s hard to disagree with. And it’s a tweak to change is the only constant, which enjoys wide acceptance.

Some of the confusion results from conflating rapid change with the rates of invention, which can’t be measured accurately anyway, but that’s another story. We’re surrounded by so many new, life-changing inventions, that it’s hard to think that a time more dynamic or more inventive could have existed. It did, more than once. Imagine how mind-blowing it would have been to experience the introduction of x-rays, automobiles, heavier-than-air flight, cinema, and radio, all of which were invented between 1890 and 1910. And we’re continuing to innovate new uses for them today.

According to David Edgerton, author of The Shock of the Old, “Given the paucity of and poor quality of the data, constructing a historical story of the changing patterns of invention is problematic. The measures by which any such conclusion could be arrived at simply do not exist, and such measures as do exist suggest caution should be exercised.”

2. Myth: Technology creates change. Fact: Just as much, technology inhibits it. Intentionally–making change prevention a big reason companies invest. Without technology, we never be able to deliver consistent customer experiences around the world, or to coin words like McPaper. And nuclear technology enabled the cold war stasis between the US and Soviet Union.

3. Myth: New technology replaces old technology. Fact: Technologies coexist, often recycle, and sometimes never completely vanish. True: Electric lights replaced kerosene lanterns. Transistors replaced vacuum tubes. There are jillions of examples of technology succession. But this successionist view distorts our thinking. More than once, I’ve been asked whether RFID will replace bar codes. Will social media replace surveys? Will Facebook and Twitter replace email? Will robots take over the world? I don’t know, but the first three aren’t the right questions to begin with.

It’s a common misconception, but most technology lifecycles aren’t characterized by clean-break succession. Technologies often coexist, with legacy technologies following new commercial pathways as new technologies are introduced. Cloud computing didn’t replace IT departments. And older technologies are propped up and maintained for decades or longer by service organizations, an industry unto itself. Less often, technologies are out-and-out flattened, overrun, and kicked off the planet—technological equivalents of buggy whips. Bad example, though, because even buggy whips are still manufactured. “It’s not over till it’s over!” With technology, is it accurate to even say that?

Amazingly, some really, really old innovations like the hand-powered rotary lawnmower, first patented in 1830, experience new life. Global warming, eco-chic and all-things-green have made it a modern-day hit. Fiskars builds one model today that’s an almost bang-on copy of the original design.

“New” is not necessarily better or longer-lasting, as David Edgerton writes in his book. In fact, he makes the point that most new products are merely tweaks to existing ones, rather than something truly revolutionary, like penicillin. Which explains why the marketing expenditures for the major pharmaceutical companies are greater than their R&D investments. Remarkable, if you think about it.

Whether inventions are VC-funded, or developed in a large corporate R&D lab, indiscriminately anointing new technology as game-changing and disruptive is emblematic of a lack of understanding about how technology produces change. We should stop attributing a grander role for the technologies we sell, and should stop promising they will enable things that they alone can’t enable.

This will be tough, because many of us in sales, marketing, and business development make a living through such positive distortion. But recognizing the myths about technology and change will help both buyers and sellers make better decisions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Thank you for the outstanding article which brings great clarification to the topic of Technology and Change. And though it does “appear” in many ways that Technology has changed, in others, it hasn’t.
    It does remind me though, of a time in my career where I was engaged in Technology for a number of years, left and later returned. When I returned, I really believed I would have much to catch up on. But the reality was, essentially the foundation/platform was the same…size of hardware such as drives for example had increased. Operating systems had changed with advanced features and benefits and software of course, had also changed with increased functionality. But it really was more a case of advancements.
    With regards to your statement “We should stop attributing a grander role for the technologies we sell, and should stop promising they will enable things that they alone can't enable. Many of us in sales, marketing, and business development make a living through such positive distortion.” This so reminds me of that phrase from one of the eras of technology – “vaporware”? I am pretty sure you remember that one?
    So anyway, thanks again and as I remain today in the Technology Industry, I am looking for a new opportunity but am grateful to still be a part of it. I have found that it is true – the only thing constant is change and it continues to put me where I like being – which is consistently questioning status quo!

  2. . . . and thanks for reading this all the way to the end! It was a long flight back from India, so I was a little longer-winded than usual! I appreciate your patience.

    Of course, customers fuel demand for the hype about technology. Some make no secret that they’re seeking technology “game changers,” when in fact, it’s strategies–which often use technology–that can change competition in an industry or market. In that regard, I think there was a lot more made of the “game changing power” of social CRM, when more than anything else, it facilitated what salespeople have done for decades: build valuable customer relationships. Not much of a game changer there, but inarguably a powerful tool. The companies that did best with social CRM innovated new uses and strategies that included the capabilities social CRM provided.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here