Technology is changing relentlessly. It always has been, but the time scale is far more compressed these days. Faster development techniques (SDKs, APIs, Frameworks), massive low-investment distribution networks (iTunes, Google Play) and near-instant fabrication (Makerbot and more) have decreased the time it takes to travel from idea to functional product.
All this means that shifts can happen faster. We’re witnessing the collapse of decades-old constructs around us almost daily. But what we don’t realize is that technology consumers, not companies, are driving these revolutions based on their casual demands. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that people often don’t understand how much power they have until everything’s changed around them. Sometimes the changes are so gradual, people don’t even recognize the technology revolutions they create.
Most of the time "the way it’s always been" needs to be disrupted, since it’s "super old school," by which I mean centralized and generally wildly inefficient. And if there’s anything people can’t stand in a 24-7, always-on society, it’s inefficiency. Trust me, I’m one of those people (I wrote this article while learning to kite-board. It wasn’t easy.)
We’re on the brink of busting up the status quo through a citizen-engineered revolution the likes of which we’ve never seen. Here are the top 5 constructs that are being retired and rebuilt by technology even as you scroll.
1. Retired: The higher-education lecture hall. Gone are the days where you pay tens of thousands of dollars to sit in a room with thousands of other people, only to be talked at. In-person classes at universities are adapting to become more interactive in format, rather than a really expensive place to fall asleep.
Rebuilt: With massively open online courses, welcome to the 21st century lecture hall. Your classmate might be logging in from Abu Dhabi, bringing an entirely new viewpoint to the conversation. Universities like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford have started offering courses for free online, breaking down walls and giving educational opportunity to everyone, regardless of zip code or what’s in your bank account. (Perhaps I would have stuck around college a bit longer if I had something like this!)
2. Retired: The old way of designing and manufacturing physical stuff. By the time you had designed and prototyped a technical innovation in the past, chances are Apple would have already changed the shape of their iPhone (or connector or something). We needed more control and a way to innovate faster.
Rebuilt: 3-D printing. From technology hardware to medical devices, with 3-D printing, anything can be prototyped and printed in a matter of hours. The Economist calls 3-D printing a "click-to-manufacture" economy, which is quite cool because it brings us back to the basics of invention —bringing ideas to life and making things better, fast.
3. [Hopefully Soon-to-Be] Retired: Our dependence on oil for energy. It takes a long, long time to break down something as longstanding, and with as many private sector and government interests, as the energy industry. But it’s happening, as people opt for more control over our energy dependence.
Rebuilt: Electric cars and charging stations are becoming more and more prominent in cities around the country. Soon, you won’t have to worry about how far you can make it without a charge, as plugs replace pumps nationwide.
4. Retired: Our payment infrastructure. We’re relying on incredibly out-of-date technology, as well as credit card companies that charge merchants the largest invisible tax on our economy: interchange. Every purchase you make with a credit card costs a merchant a fraction of that purchase, which up until now, they’ve just chalked up as a loss.
Rebuilt: Merchants are realizing that it shouldn’t cost money to move money. Instead of paying a tax for nothing in particular, merchants are exploring mobile payment platforms that offer some sort of real value beyond just the transaction (in the form of getting new customers in the door and keeping the ones they have). Consumers and merchants are experiencing the simple yet powerful benefit of saving money.
5. Retired: The digital divide. It used to be that rural areas simply didn’t have as good of access to the Internet as urban areas. That was a major problem. Luckily we don’t have to rely on the speed of broadband anymore to solve this problem.
Rebuilt: Mobile infrastructures are leveling the playing field, giving more equal access to the Internet in countries and areas of the United States that fell within the realm of the digitally divided. Add to this trend the much lower cost of mobile devices and tablets (versus a desktop or laptop device) and the opportunity to access technology becomes that much more possible.
So, what do you say? This year, let’s break down some new walls just because we can. After all, changing the status quo is the number one thing that gets engineers like me excited. Let’s power a revolution of consumer choice.
[Image: Flickr user Giampaolo Macorig]