July 14, 2003

Disruptive Technology I

I originally had a very nice and long note I wrote on disruptive technologies, what they are and some analysis of this article. Movable Type seems not to like articles that long. Read the above referred article, it's great. In short, GPS is going to change our world in ways you might expect and ways that will take you by surprise. It's not just for smart bombs and for soldiers who don't want to read a map anymore.

(UPDATE: I fixed it. --BR)

Most technologies are introduced and work on "S curves" where they increase efficiency over time very slowly at first (often starting out as being less efficient that pre-existing alternatives), then take off very rapidly and finally flatten out their progress as the technology becomes mature. If the steep portion of the S curve is long enough, the technology becomes disruptive, changing the degree of efficiency in its current task so that entirely new kinds of things become possible and old assumptions are better thrown out the window.

I just read an interesting article about one of the less appreciated disruptive technologies of our time, GPS. GPS, for those who are less familiar with it, solves the problem of location, 'where is'. Where am I, where is the border, where is my shipment, where is my wife, all perfectly pedestrian questions but up until GPS came around we were willing to live with very imprecise answers because as a practical matter, you couldn't afford to maintain the effort to answer such questions with precision all the time.

On an intimate note, now we can tell where our children are within a few feet and get that answer quickly, easily, at any time day or night. This gives parents an entirely new set of dilemmas to choose, when should children have 'free' time to start growing and flexing their independence? GPS transponder systems provide the ability to make this dilemma more than an idle fantasy. This is a current future application but it's only the conservative impulse that prevents deployment of such systems today, the technology is ready.

In the commercial arena, this permits a much higher degree of precision in transport, in placing resources from concrete to beehives, and in inventory applications everywhere. Commerce seems to be the current leg of GPS deployment that is entering its major disruptive phase. A key figure is deployment rates (next year, they're projected to deploy as many GPS devices as the previous 25 years have seen deployed).

GPS effects on agriculture will be huge as price comes down. The efficiency effects on 1st world agriculture are high but as it becomes more and more affordable for poorer and poorer farmers, food supplies will be going up as required labor goes down. This is disruptive economically but also politically as rural voting blocs and interests are a common basic building bloc of democratic polities and rural depopulation is a major fear behind the creation and maintenance of the EU CAP for example. Increased food supplies and price crashes also tend to knock the wind out of the malthusians with their overpopulation fears.

All in all an interesting read.

Posted by TMLutas at July 14, 2003 09:04 AM