Disruption: What Digital Does Best

Posted by Tom Hespos on June 5th, 2012 at 7:40 am

“Where do you think it’s all going?”

This is the question I get asked more than any other.  Usually, it’s in reference to the shiny object du jour or a trend within digital media.  But sometimes it’s fun to climb right up to 60,000 feet and think about the future of digital’s impact.

In just over 15 years of serious application, we’ve seen the models of entire business categories completely upended by the Internet.  It started with information services, the easiest thing to replicate and enhance with hypertext.  The Internet ate that category first, and we’re forever changed by the availability of on-demand information.  Pre-Internet information-gathering methods now seem silly to me.  I used to actually smile when I saw a new phone directory lying in my driveway.  Now, I’m legitimately offended when the phone company kills trees to produce an information service I’ll never use again.

The categories that were upended after information services all had something in common.  Products in these categories were easily replicated digitally.  Publishing would never be the same, as technology was developed to easily replicate music, books and movies.  Categories with products that could be represented digitally with a new compression format, file type or other representation scheme were disrupted.  And again, my pre-Internet behavior now seems silly.  I used to wait in line at a record store to purchase my copy of a favorite band’s new release.  Now, the music store is in my home and my favorite bands send me messages through various electronic means to let me know they’ve released something new.

From 60,000 feet, there’s no reason to believe that we’re done disrupting entire business categories.

The Internet changed how we buy cars, for instance, because it changed one specific aspect of that business – the informational bit of it.  As consumers, we had to get used to increased access to information, like knowing what a dealer paid on invoice for a specific automobile.  We don’t need to depend on car salesmen, brochures or enthusiast magazines to know the specifics about a particular car model.  We can configure our own cars on manufacturer websites and find actual cars that meet are criteria within dealer inventory.

But what happens when digital changes cars, and not just how information is exchanged about them?

Decades from now, perhaps the passenger vehicle you want isn’t designed by GM or Toyota.  It’s crowdsourced, with the crowdsourcing supervised by a team of engineers who spend a lot of their spare time designing things and running them through simulation software, just for the challenge of it.  You don’t locate this vehicle at a dealer because dealer networks no longer exist.  Instead, you pay based on the cost and availability of the raw materials needed to build it.  Speaking of the build, it’s customizable by you and it’s done at home or at a nearby community-owned facility, by what is essentially a big 3D printer.

Sound farfetched?  If so, why?

3D printing is here today.  (Granted, a lot needs to happen before something as complex as a car can be “printed,” but it’s here.)  Crowdsourced cars are here.  What would be so farfetched about printing an open-source car one day?

A million questions surround such a thing – How would consumers know that such a car would be safe?  Who would regulate it?  How would existing car manufacturers compete?  To me, thinking about these kinds of things isn’t as fun as thinking about what digital will do to the world of physical products.

We already have thriving design communities online.  We even have companies designed to source ideas from these communities and take clever designs to market as quickly as possible.  Is there any reason to expect that this model can’t hold up as technological advances in 3D printing continue?  No, of course not.

The MP3 format was generally credited with disrupting the music business, largely because it reproduced music fairly faithfully while keeping file sizes to a minimum so they could be shared over broadband connections.  What happens when we develop a file construct that contains not only the design specifications for a physical product, but also the code necessary to instruct a 3D printer in how to build it?

This technology may be a long way off, but the point I’m making is easily digested today.  There’s no reason to believe that the disruption digital media can bring to business is largely over.  I think it’s just beginning.

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