I came across this picture of a man being interviewed by a flock of reporters the other day. I was struck immediately by a few things:
1. A couple of years ago, all those smartphones in the picture (noted with red arrows) would have been some other recording media (like the micro-cassettes being held by the other reporters without the red arrows). Now, it’s commonplace to use one’s smartphone not only for note-taking, but also for broadcast audio. The picture provides a real-time depiction of how technology constantly changes the manner in which we interact with our surroundings. “Speak into my smartphone” instead of “talk into the microphone.” “Just Google it” instead of “go to the library and research a topic.” “Check out my blog” instead of “read my essay in a book, newspaper or magazine.” We see this type of change / innovation within the picture – i.e., the old (micro-cassette, once itself new) being supplanted by the new (the iPhone, which will someday give way to other innovative technology). We witness old behaviors getting replaced, renewed by new ones…caused by technology.
2. Smartphones are of course employed for other purposes, too. Not only are they being used here to record an interview, it is highly likely that they are also used to e-mail, take pictures, make voice or video calls, livestream, surf the web, watch videos or listen to music / entertainment, make calculations, organize time / calendars, or etc., etc., etc. These are just some of the reasons why the micro-cassette is being replaced. Importantly, the smartphone has supplanted other tools because it makes us more productive.
3. Economists across the spectrum generally believe that when we become more productive – that is, doing more work in less time or with fewer resources – we grow our economy. It helps companies hire more people, stay more competitive and make more profits. It also leads to rising income levels / living standards for individuals. In short, more productivity increases the size of our “economic pie,” boosting wealth and prosperity on the micro and macro levels.
4. Productivity is especially helpful to small businesses. It allows them to compete on (nearly) a level playing field with other well-healed or entrenched competitors. Using myself as an example, IT has enabled me to be a TV producer, podcaster, photographer, writer, typesetter, graphic artist, researcher, blogger / publisher and business administrator all from the comfort of my office desk…on a single day (sometimes all within the same hour when I’m really jammin’). Not a decade ago, those functions might have taken ten or more people to bring about the same output. Today, productivity-enhancing IT allows me to go competitively solo.
5. Productivity doesn’t just happen. Innovation begets it. However, innovation is fraught with risk. For companies and individuals to supply the marketplace with innovative goods and services, that risk must be rewarded. Profits must be realized. Property rights (like intellectual property), which underpin each new product and service, must be protected. Regulatory environments must avoid being arbitrary and capricious. Other barriers to supply and trade must remain low. The iPhone could have simply been another mobile phone, but it wasn’t. For Apple to supply this (still) amazing new product, the company had to be sure that it could profit from its substantial risk.
6. The role of profit cannot be overstated here. Not only does it help companies and workers, it also benefits consumers. At first, profits, where they can be calculated to be made, inspire the supply of innovative products and services. When profits are really good (or supernormal), they can act like a signal to other competitors to enter into the marketplace, spurring new competition. A case in point – Apple’s iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone on the market. But, because it so clearly ignited the market with its revolutionary design and use features, it became the initial market leader, selling millions of units, and lifting Apple to become the most valuable company in the world. Others – like Android and Microsoft – seeing Apple’s success, and believing they could do it better (or could at least profit handsomely), came flooding into the market, too, giving consumers new competitive choice. Today, though the iPhone was the Promethean flame, Android’s smartphones – which were released after the iPhone – lead the market. Regardless, consumers benefit from this intense competition – competition not just in the smartphone, but in other forms of connectivity, network provision, applications, systems and services, too.
7. I could go on to reach a thousand words (or more) describing this picture, but I won’t test your patience. Perhaps the last point I’d like to leave you with is this: Most readers of the Wall Street Journal who passed by this picture last week probably didn’t give it a second thought. I suspect that’s because we have become immune or dulled to the advance of technology. Many take it for granted (or even demonize it), thinking that the font that delivers innovation – the very stuff which makes our lives better, safer and more prosperous – will never run dry. They have become accustomed to this onslaught, believing, I think, that those who supply it are somehow indentured to society to sate our “demand.” Every once in a while a product like the iPhone comes along and blows people’s minds. Our lives and habits get changed, mostly for the better. Then we soon forget or become oblivious to that technologically-created delta.
Innovation is dynamic, fragile, non-linear – built by those who take risk to improve our lives. It doesn’t take a thousand words to state how important it is to nurture that process, one which while rightly profiting our best innovators, benefits us all, too.