Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Welcome to Consumerism 2.0: No idea what we're doing

(Note: After writing I realized this was much more rambling than intended, but, meh, enjoy the stream of consciousness.)

Techdirt has an interesting blurb on the idea sure to make any transhuman giggle with glee and Kurzweil smile with approval. The article posits that planned obsolescence is dead. Apple was probably the last to really make a go with it using redesigned computer cases, a la iMac, but tech moves too fast and we live in a global market, making exposure and availability non-issues in product design. Also, any real improvements in the overarching technology is announced far enough ahead of time so that OEMs can queue up to the the first to offer them, and competition is very much alive and well, leading companies to show their cards as soon as they have reasonable certainty that the products or services are feasible.

Anyhow, it's an interesting point to consider. I don't think the issue is that tech development or discoveries are happening too fast for the market, I think the nature of the markets and the complexity of 'reference' products (ie - instead of traditional metrics like crop harvest, we've added PC sales, cell phone subscribers, etc to the mix) has fundamentally changed. Hell, look at HDTV. Market penetration is just starting to hit a level of real significance, and even with that, how many people that you know of have a Blu-Ray player? How many HD channels are there on your TV? Undoubtedly a large part of this slowness to adopt is due to outdated business models making their last stand (eg - RIAA and MPAA) or crazy departures from traditional models with hopes of hitting the right plan (eg - the Internet bubble burst of 2001).

Maybe it is that the nature of the Internet is more Socialist than Capitalist. Maybe information itself is like this, or human social tendencies. People try to peg down what makes modern culture such a departure from the past, and they all seem to converge at 'faster communication'. True, but you can't ignore that communication rarely stops at any one receiver - it propagates through the system/society. I guess what I mean is that there is no grape vine anymore, just a series of babbling guys and gals with megaphones.

So, why is this on a BCI blog (yes, I know I've been wandering anyways lately, but there is a point)? Because BCI design requires traditional tech, which moves by the above mentioned mysterious means, and basic science, which has not fully embraced this new paradigm. Academia as a whole hasn't, and the approach to a product's design versus understanding the underlying nature of it are in complete discord. What's more, initiatives like the NIH's push for translational research over basic science don't help. At best they take scientists uncomfortable with the idea of making use of findings and slowly nudge them to thing of practical applications, but what it really means is a nice rewrite of their grant's intro and discussion.

To make matters even more difficult, the academic market in science is nearly uncustomizable - what works for molecular biology doesn't for engineering. Who in their right mind would develop a product to be used by 15 labs? Sure you could charge through the nose, but eventually, you'll lose out to budget concerns or lack of manpower to implement the one new feature that 4 of those 15 labs are requesting. Try to get things rolling with a big company and wait for cries of Big Corporation sullying the good name of academia. Try to get a more science oriented company to take on a problem and you get EndNote. Sure you CAN use EndNote for keeping track of publications, but that has got to be the most obnoxiously buggy, overpriced, and generally annoying program I've ever been forced to use. I fricken HATE EndNote. But it isn't all Thompson's fault - why the Hell do we still care about publications? Are we still at the point where we need magazines to tell us what is hot is science for the Fall Season? Oh, and how many other publications are there out there where YOU pay the PUBLISHER for accepting your content, once reviewed by others? "We're not even sure this is very good, so we'll send it to some other people in your field. We won't pay them, bu they will tell us if it is worthy, and then maybe you can pay us a couple thousand dollars, and we'll add it to the magazine we make a profit off of." None, and publishing in every profession serves the same purpose - career advancement/recognition. (I'll give J of Neuroscience a pass, since it funds a society that supports meetings, but it is still a ridiculous model.)

I'm starting to get off topic here, but the idea in general is that basic science needs a revolution in the way it is harnessed, supported, and integrated into companies or collaborations between researchers and companies. Basic science negates the possibility of planned obsolescence by its very nature, and the technologies that support it do as well. The result has been many smaller companies with highly specialized products at high prices. That's why I predict that BCI development will remain the territory of small, highly specialized companies. Regardless of what the numbers say about the number of people that can use one, the pace of development is set by basic science, not mass market technology, which incurs high costs for low material gains. It is a Lose-Lose model right now because no one knows how to push research into the next major phase that I think all researchers know they are on the cusp of, nor do we know how to operate a traditional company in the modern/connected world (at least, not responsibly). Most people assume that you develop a device, some magic occurs, and you are off and running a business, but that is becoming less and less the case.

Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of chances to spin science into a viable company that makes a few people rich and a bunch happily employed. But, the chances that it will change the world are slim to none because the means simply aren't there. As the death of planned obsolescence has pulled some of the old tricks of product design out from under the businesses that relied on it, science based business has suffered from stagnation, which may be a boon. Rather than scramble reactively, we're thinking of ways to push past overspecialization. And I know just how we'll do it... but you'll have to subscribe to DirectNeuralInterface v2 for the low low monthly rate of just $2000 to find out ;)

1 comment:

natalia said...

Hear hear!

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