Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Toward a New Technology Paradigm

Anyone who has come of age in the latter half of the 20th century has seen manufactured consumer technology change from being a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution to the enabler of the Information Revolution.

The seeds of this change began during the Second World War, during which America's industrial might, energized and accelerated by the demands of an all-out global conflict and virtually unlimited capital, was forced to develop and adopt newly discovered principles of high volume, lean manufacturing. After the war these same industrial manufacturing principles were inculcated into the culture of the rebuilding Japanese economy by the occupying American forces, the result being that, decades later, Japan had begun to out pace America as the leader of efficient, innovative high volume industrial manufacturing.

Simultaneous to the manufacturing revolution underway in Japan, American industrial manufacturing began a long period of decline in efficiency and innovation as new domestic markets for manufactured goods were satisfied by the dictates of short-term expediencies, ignoring the need to begin competing with more efficient foreign firms in a soon to be globally competitive economy. America had won the war, with the help of American business acumen, and had all to itself an explosively growing domestic economy to satisfy. Innovation and efficiency were not the prime considerations in an economy monopolized and isolated.

This lack of foresight caught American industry off-guard in the 1970s and '80s as Japanese consumer manufacturing gained world-class status and opened up entire new markets for products that American firms were entirely unable to manufacture, such as the VCR and other high technology consumer items.

While industrial manufacturing declined in America, an entirely new field opened up, due to spin-offs from the Manhattan Project and later from America's fledgling space program. This was the new arena of solid-state electronics, which rapidly supplanted the vacuum tube and ushered in the age of the transistor, and later the integrated circuit. It was this new field, and the subsequent development of the microprocessor by Intel, that gave America a new-found competitive advantage in innovation. The marriage of the microprocessor with American research on networked computers led to an explosion of growth that we have come to know as the Information Age and the Internet.

As the computer age matures, we once again see foreign manufacturing dominating the market place, and even the market for computer software, an area almost exclusively dominated by American firms is beginning to erode.

Paralleling the explosion of high technology lean manufacturing has been the maturing of advanced principles of consumer marketing. The science of marketing is as advanced a field as is manufacturing, with social scientists, behaviorists and statisticians employed in a global effort to dominate existing markets and locate, develop and monopolize newly emerging opportunities. Social scientists, psychologists and behaviorists began studying the field of influence and persuasion long before the Second World War, but it was not until afterwards that these principles of influence and persuasion over masses of people began to be applied to domestic markets in the free world. Previously there had been the examples of state-controlled propagandizement of whole populations by repressive regimes, such as under Stalin's Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and also in freer countries of the west during periods of national conflict in order to motivate and alter the public's behavior so as to garner an acceptance of the realities of the tough war years.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of the success of the new science of influence and persuasion has been the principle of planned obsolescence and its necessary requirement to foster a continual cycle of replacement and upgrade. Although consumer products or services may continue to function for years after their intended useful lifespan has been exceeded, often they are rendered obsolete years earlier by lack of support from the manufacturing industry, or newer, competing replacements offer conveniences and features that compel the consumer to voluntarily obsolete their purchased products prematurely.

One of the most common paradigms promoted for the advancement of the so-called technology treadmill has been the establishment of hierarchies of technological sophistication within consumer technology, often stated in simplistic terms such as “better,” “faster,” “upgraded,” “newer,” etc. These hot words are commonly used by marketers as a propaganda tactic to manipulate the consumer into accepting the belief that the products and services they currently employ, and which satisfied them yesterday, can no longer satisfy them today. The root principle at work here is the necessity to change psychological perceptions in the relationship between the consumer and the consumed. Once this internal battle has been won, the consumer will act out his desires as the manufacturers and marketers make available a plethora of choices designed to temporarily satiate the internal lust of the newer, the better, the faster and the sleeker.

It therefore becomes crucially important for those who, desiring to remain unmanipulated and free from the influence of contemporary marketing, and wanting to inoculate themselves against these tactics, must understand that their area of study must be their own internal desire, motivations and psychology. They must know themselves, as the ancient philosopher said. In knowing themselves they must also understand the distinctions between wants and needs, that any minor consumer purchase of some frivolous nature may seem inconsequential or trivial, but it helps to reinforce previously implanted desires to consume uncontrollably. Like the alcoholic, to which even one nip of the bottle is non-trivial, so too are minor consumption patterns establishing and reinforcing of more destructive behaviors.

Another effective principle of psychological inoculation against marketing is to tear down the false categories of old versus new, mechanical versus electronic, larger versus smaller that dominate the mental landscape. Implicit to this process is that, in order for them to remain as valid alternatives, older products and services must be found to continue functioning in personally and socially useful ways. Micro-economics of repair and reuse must be actively supported, along with the personal courage to get one's hands dirty and learn to maintain these products themselves.

Several useful questions to ask oneself are: “what is the intrinsic usefulness of this product or service,” and “what alternatives to this new purchase do I already possess?” This kind of personal cost-benefit analysis can go a long way toward inserting a grain of rational thinking into a spending habit that is usually driven by the primitive, reptilian brain. A higher degree of consciousness is required in order to maintain one's self-control in this era of unparalleled, mass psychological manipulation, promoted by private interests, media and governments alike.

One recent and positive trend has been the popular acceptance of older products and styles, commonly termed “retro,” as if an attitude of inevitability has crept over the popular culture, an intrinsic awareness that we must, in order to survive as a species, curb our insatiable appetite for the new and different and begin to learn an appreciation for the past and the present. We must begin to accept and actively promote this new technology paradigm as a de facto philosophy and guiding life principle.


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