Whatever your technology nirvana, let it be more than 140 characters sent on a phone

'The next big thing' is a way of life for marketers, but a true technology game-changer is a class apart - revolutionary tech does more than enable brands to sell more shampoo, writes Marketing contributor Will Harris.

"The next big thing"

Eight weeks ago, I couldn’t run, cycle or even walk without pain. An ambitious burst of parenting with a round ball rather than an oval one brought on a severely torn cartilage in my right knee.

There was no swelling, no outward sign, just a searing pain that no amount of fine red wine could dull. I went to see a doctor, who sent me to another one, who photographed the inside of my knee, then put me to sleep and fixed the problem. He couldn’t tell me how he put me to sleep; no one understands why anaesthetic works, they just know it does. He drilled small holes into the bone, and the stem cells in the blood that oozed out regenerated new cartilage. Again, he couldn’t tell me why this happens, but it just does.

The only residual sign of all this today is two small holes below my knee, and a shiny metal walking stick propped up with the umbrellas by the front door. A glinting reminder, every time I step out of the house, not to play footie with a seven-year-old. However commonplace that surgery is, you have to admit that the technology behind it is marvellous. With the centenary of the Great War so much in the news, I have reflected often on the millions crippled by war before technology like this was possible, who lived their lives in excruciating pain. I thought a lot of the suffering that has been dimmed by this technology in the developed world, and will one day be alleviated in the developing world. 

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Did you see what I did there? No mention of Twitter. Two hundred and fifty words, and no reference to Facebook or Instagram. Four paragraphs and no big data, NFC or even Shoreditch.

That’s because, despite what we might think, most of what we casually refer to as technology in our marketing world is not new, but a repurposing of something that someone else has invented. 

Revolution

Once upon a time we had radio, cinema, mass-produced posters, TV and newspapers. These were the tools for marketers; the staggering technological breakthroughs of their day.

In those days, the law of unintended consequences was often writ large. Early conventional wisdom (and all the cartoons of the day) had the telephone pegged as a means of broadcasting directly to people in their homes. The plan was for families to gather round the breakfast table, while a newsreader (presumably in black tie) read the contents of a national newspaper to them, down the telephone line. You can see the newspapermen’s logic: use new technology to broaden their reach. In a time before the BBC was born, which other organisation would provide what we today call "content", and they would have called news?

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More recently, there are only three inventions that have been devised in our lifetime that can possibly be described as new technology. The first was the microprocessor. Second came the stringing together of all the computers in which those chips were used, so that everyone could access everyone else’s knowledge. Finally, people worked out a way of shrinking all that technology to a size that fitted in the palm of your hand.

Innovation

Every other piece of technology marketers rave about today is a derivation of one of those three. Without them we would still be in a world of talking telephones and long-copy newspaper ads. 

See the world through that perspective, and your definition of what makes a technological marketing innovation changes somewhat. Much of the stuff we bandy around is small fry compared with the real technology that is coming down the track, which we haven’t yet worked out how to deal with.

What role does marketing play as we unfurl the consequences of mapping the human genome? Hydrogen fuel cells, once perfected and mass-produced, will change life on the planet forever. Space travel as commonplace as airline travel, and air travel as commonplace as car travel in our own personal flying machines; all this is possible and some of it is probable in our lifetimes. 

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Significant, worthy and noble than transmitting 140 characters via a phone, or allowing one group of friends to see what another is doing. I’ve nothing against social media – the disruption it has caused old-fashioned edifices in business, institutions or government is delightful to watch – but don’t confuse them with a golden age of technology. To be truly revolutionary, technology has to do more than enable companies to sell more bottles of shampoo.

If you think of human innovation as a railway line, with the big, serious technical innovations as branches or junctions, our every-day marketing ones are on a branch-line to nowhere. Our kids will look back and laugh at how important (and self-important) we thought ourselves with all the shiny black boxes we invented. They will be sweating the big stuff – artificial intelligence, people who refuse to die, how to correct the climate, not enough water for a thirsty, ever-growing world. 

I’m not saying you should turn your back on Facebook et al. Just maintain things in perspective, and keep a weather-eye out for the really big technology that is coming down the pipeline, that really could change our marketing lives. Oh, and one other thing: never play football with an aggressive seven-year-old. M