Disruptive Technologies and its effect on Society

[Keynote Address at the Seminar on “Disruptive Technologies and The Impact on the Society” organized by Madras Institute of Technology, 16/02/2018]

Thank you for the opportunity to speak.

When I was asked to present the keynote address on this topic, the technical evangelist in me was overjoyed. Telling you all about the wonderful strides made by technology and giving examples of disruptions via a crisp PowerPoint deck was idea that seemed appropriate. But when I thought a bit more, I realized that I was trying to take the path of least resistance, and how the aforementioned approach was so “oxymoronic”. Here I am, a technical guy, telling you all, technical guys, about disruptive technologies and their effects, when those very ‘disruptive technologies’ provide both you and I the means to read and research about them at the time you please, at the place you please.

So what value addition was I doing at this event? This line of reasoning allowed me to clear my thinking, and here I present to you my thoughts about disruption and how “I believe” everything fits together.

But before I begin, let me get a few definitions out of the way. The theory of disruptive innovation was propounded by Clayton Christensen in 1995. And he described the term as the transformation of business models and value networks by technology or business innovation.

Next, when I use the terms – organization, companies, and societies – I mean the same thing, i.e. entities that are pursuing any kind of business or social goal. And I will use them interchangeably.

Now, with the definitions out of door. Let’s get on with the subject. I was told to talk about the future with respect to disruptive technologies.

Alvin Toffler, the greatest futurist to have ever lived, once said, “Nobody knows the future with certainty. We can however, identify ongoing patterns of change”. Thus, the greatest futurist of all times, states that he cannot predict the future!

Hence, I am not here to predict the future either. But as your co-passenger in this journey – during what I believe to be the most influential periods of mankind – I can, at best, tell you what I see outside of the window. How it’s impacting the future and co-existing with the present.

During one of his commencement addresses, the late David Foster Wallace an American writer and Professor of English and creative writing, tells a story to his audience. I will recount that story and use his line of thinking to address the topic of this discussion. So I quote the story first:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about”.

That’s Point Number 1 – What is Water?

In 1997, Paul Gilster, in his first extended English-language treatment of “digital literacy,” defined it as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.”

The immediate point of this definition is that Digital Literacy is not about earning a degree.

It is about easy access to information.

Right or wrong information is part of a separate debate.

And it is about the ability to assimilate and react to it.

React in a good or bad way, is again part of a separate debate.

That is Point Number 2 – Digital Literacy.

Finally, in his book, “ The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence”,  Don Tapscott describes the Age of Network Intelligence as an all-encompassing and revolutionizing phenomenon fueled by the convergence of advancements in human communication, computing power, and content.

And as Eric Schmidt CEO of Google, as aptly put, the advent and power of connection technologies – tools that connect people to vast amounts of information and to one another – will make the twenty-first century all about surprises.

That, Ladies & Gentlemen is Point Number 3 – 100 years of Surprises!

And these surprises will come from all directions.

Social Media will force open the windows in the most oppressive Arab states to let the winds of change blow in which we will later on call the Arab Spring. Closer home the same access to information and its ability to get viral quickly, will give birth to a social revolution against corruption leading to the rise of political organization that in its short span will give a Chief Minister to a state.

Elon Musk will put a sports car into space.

And closer home, Priya Varrier through a raised eyebrow and wink of an eye will bowl over the hearts of millions and instantly market a movie without hoardings, trailers, and talk-shows. That is disruption. Priya Varrier will also attract an FIR, because that same technology (or at least the effect of it), will give ammunition to crazed elements to push us all towards bigotry. That too is disruption.

Similarly, Drones will deliver pizzas and products, and taxi aggregators will change the very concept of cab services by making the “driver” and the “car” both fungible elements of the business model. To elaborate, early taxi operators had cars and their drivers were always from a certain strata of society. The cars could change, but their operators were always coming from the same source. Now, anyone can be a cab driver full-time or part-time. And this diffusion is happening across the strata of society and gender. This is disruption.

Additionally, AI will help write the scripts of popular TV shows. The modus operandi is simple – use big data and mine for award winning plots from earlier shows, extract the key concepts, put in blender, add sambar masala, and salt to taste. And voila! You have a hit TV serial.

Going one, Automation on one side will lead to massive retrenchments – yes people will lose jobs – but we forget, the IT services giants were founded on premise of cheap labor and efficiency. To be the devil’s advocate, they have been fighting rising wages with the same level of efficiency to come to the point of diminishing returns. And they are a ‘business’. So if they get a cheaper and better alternative it is obvious they will take it. Machines will take a chunk of our jobs, and there will be quite a bit of “Kolavari” on this issue. However, it will also provide the opportunities for human beings to do something which only they can do best (not the machines). And that is to dream; to imagine; to communicate; to care; to build new things; and to evolve. This will lead to rise of new job families and means of employment. This is also disruption.

Ladies and gentlemen, the global economy is transforming many aspects of the market – from consumer behavior to new business models. And, digitalization underpins this shift. The result is that organizations across sectors see their business models upend as they deal with the astonishingly fast technology shifts.

Organizations recognize digital as a means to gain competitive advantage. However, while some have leveraged digital to gain business edge; others have not been that successful, suggesting that there is no unique way in which this medium should be approached, tailored, and used.

To throw some statistics, in 2016, virtually every Forbes Global 2000 company was in some sort of digital transformation journey.  And only one in eight got it right. In fact their expectations were neither met nor exceeded and the gap between expectation and meeting were so enormous it was deemed a failure. Add to it that, last year half of 400 U.S.-based senior executives polled by Wipro Digital believed their company isn’t successfully executing 50 percent of their strategies. One in 5 say their company’s digital transformation is a waste of time.

Considering the primacy and criticality of overall change management along with the rethinking of processes and technology landscape, Digitalization can be a complex operation. This is because, in essence, Digital Transformation and by extension Disruption is about delivering value, in a new way.

But, how does one define ‘value’? What is the real problem that organizations are trying to solve with Digitalization? Which leads to the second question – who defines that value? Are those your customers, or investors, or competitors or all of them together including your employees?

Most of digitalization failures can be attributed to the fact that organizations try to enter the space by mimicking the strategies that others have created.

What these “new initiates” do not realize is that mere imitation will not help.  This is because the end-users – the digital natives – are strongly clued into the medium and instinctively understand its nuances. Thus, they can be critically dismissive and merciless in their response. Think about Cadbury, Maggi, etc.

Closer examination of success stories show that, progressive organizations and societies tie their digital initiatives to innovative strategies to create path-breaking means of engagement, managing information, support inventories, and building a better business.

So, here in India, a project called Crowdring has turned the featureless “unsmart” mobile phone into a tool for fighting corruption. And in China, an old-fashioned website called Baby Come Home helps parents find their missing or abducted children.

In Brazil, an open-source culture has created Catraca Livre and the remarkable Fora do Eixo, a co-operative which organizes thousands of cultural events across the country through a cashless barter system. Mexico, meanwhile, has produced Medicall Home, a revolutionary national primary healthcare service based on the mobile network. Again, closer home, global charity organizations are using innovative and disruptive technologies to re-imagine and revitalize the Anganwadi program, the immunization program etc.

In 2016, the Government of India did something that no previous government had ever attempted. No points for guessing – Demonitization.

I am not going into the merits-demerits of the move, but I will tell you about certain facts that resulted due to this sudden “reboot” of the financial system. The Government payment system established in 2016, was processing 100,000 transactions. That same system was processing 76 Million transactions in 2017. So, essentially, there was a successful move towards electronic dealings.

Another case in point: Of the many systems that have breached the 1 Billion user mark, most have come from the United States and are private enterprises – Facebook, Google, etc. Aadhar is the only non-US technical system to have more than 1 billion users but also the only one which has been created by a public sector entity.

Why do I bring this up?

Not because I am a proponent of any political party. I am not. But because, it demonstrates the phenomenal power of disruption that new-age technologies can deliver. So when we think about Disruptive Technologies and their effect on society, we need to think about inspiring new solutions that solve difficult problems (both social and business); those solutions that impact a vast majority of people; and those that inspire new ideas which others can follow.

To bring home the point, our technologies are advancing at breakneck speed and while the capabilities it provides are endless, our knowledge of how to use it is limited. Let me explain that; as humans on one hand we have the extraordinary power to imagine but at the same time we are plagued with faults and weaknesses. To overcome these inherent faults and weaknesses, our powerful imagination has helped create an advance systems and societies that function on them. However on the other hand that very same system wants to curtail our imagination. Because Industrialization begets scalable efficiency and feels comfortable in it. So it views imagination as the enemy.

This is the real conundrum of our age. Amazing, isn’t it?

It’s because, humans like to live our life on our default settings, which inhibits us to break out of our constraints. This default setting is fueled by the dark side of disruptive technologies which puts the focus on performance. Which in turn leads to over-imagination of risks and downgrading of potential rewards.

Indeed, 43 percent of 4,500 CIOs surveyed for the 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey cited resistance to change as the top impediment to a successful disruptive strategy.

Hence, the real shift is the “mind-set”, where the organization needs to veer away from the ‘technology implementer’ trajectory towards a ‘value delivery’ trajectory. And that’s where we should harness disruptive technologies. To re-awaken our imagination and overcome our cognitive biases that bind us to the practices of the past. Because as I see it, the fundamental unit of disruption is us – you and I.

And at the end, it is up to us as to what disruption we want – do we want to use the technology to iron out that LAST chink in the armor; remove that last inefficiency in the process. Or do we want to use the technology to act as catalyst and amplify our imagination to discover new avenues, add new sources of value, and allow humanity to flourish.

That Ladies and Gentlemen is the true effect of disruptive technologies and its effect on society.

To close, I again paraphrase David Foster Wallace and he says, it’s this simple awareness of what is real and essential, which is so hidden in plain sight that we have to keep reminding ourselves again and again: “This is water. This is water”.

Thanks everyone!!

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