Notes from the field: the next big thing?

next big thing

I was greeted by the traditional cacophony of fire crackers heralding the first day of work after the Lunar New Year Holiday when I reached the office this morning. As is the custom, people gathered to express their wishes for a healthy and prosperous Year of the Rat as they gave their offerings and prayers to the deities and spirits. Given how ominously the new year has started, let’s hope that they were listening!

Over the holiday, I spent quite a bit of time reading a pile of articles and reports purporting to predict the key technology trends that will have the deepest economic and social impact over the next decade. What struck me most about them was their startling lack of originality. It’s almost as if they were written from the same set of talking points prepared by the marketing department of a silicon vendor for time-pressured journalists and journalists. Yes, yes, we get it. 5G is going to be revolutionary and disruptive. So too is, AI, IoT, VR, AR, and a host of other new technologies… Of course, they’re going to transform the way we live.

next big thing

Whatever you may think of his teachings, at least Confucius was honest about his role in the Spring and Autumn period ecosystem when he said in 7.1 of the Analects: “I transmit but I don’t create.” He didn’t pretend to be a prophet like so many of today’s talking heads whose motto should be “I copy and I paste.”

Just I was about to give up on all the bloviation, I received the latest Benedict Evans newsletter featuring a link to the presentation that he gave at Davos. Entitled “Tech in 2020: Standing on the shoulders of giants”, it asks the deceptively simple question of what’s the next Big Thing now that the majority of the world’s population has a smart phone. His answer, rather disappointingly for those of us working in tech industry at least, is government regulation and policy.

Of course, Evans isn’t claiming that new technologies like drones, robotics, and the cloud won’t have an impact. He is simply saying that the more we experience the downsides of social media, ecommerce, ride sharing and other new services, the more we will expect governments to devise and implement new rules to regulate the increasingly complex social and business environment that they are creating.

One big danger is course that governments will become even more intrusive in our daily lives as they roll out ever more legislation to deal with issues like privacy, security, competition, wages, and freedom of expression. Another major threat is that the cost of compliance will reduce competition and innovation by increasing the barriers to entry for companies aiming to penetrate new markets.

next big thing

As depressing as it may sound, Evans’s thesis is hard to argue with. Signs of this trend are all around us. The time has come to exchange your Patagonia fleece for a Savile Row suit in other words. Unless you can persuade the deities and spirits to intervene, you’re going to need it.

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