More Advice for the Buggy Whip Crowd

June 12, 2009

Google executives have been known to suggest that newspaper publishers rely on technology to cure their woes. I think that Googlers and other advice givers may want to curl up with the thrilled non fiction book by Jacques Ellul in either English or French and read what the sociologist has to say about la technologie. You can find a copy of the here. My copy carries the title Bluff technologique, but translation is a wondrous profession. Summing up 400 pages of turgid analysis, let me say that when technology bites someone on the backside, today we use technology to solve the problems created by technology. The alternative is a more human method of sucking the poison from the wound. Not too popular, eh?

I just read another of these “technology will save your tail” programs. I scanned “Scoble’s Building 43 Launching Tonight with Practical Tips for businesses Stuck in the 90s” here. I liked the write up. I didn’t like the concept of providing advice to people who are faced with technology snakes biting their ankles and fleshy parts.

I read Building43’s “the New Economics of Entrepreneurship” and realized that talking about this stuff is indeed exciting. When a Silicon Valley luminary such as Guy Kawasaki dispenses the advice, those in the know should listen. Check out his essay here. I agree with most of what he says.

My concern is that none of the Silicon Valley wizards has thought about the implications of using technology to solve today’s problems.

I don’t think technology can solve the problems of newspapers or any other business that is being bitten by competitors and customers who have embraced different business methods or alternative methods of meeting needs.

I don’t like the buggy whip analogy either. Every MBA student and future Bernie Madoff reads this essay and realizes the reason the buggy whip guy failed was that he did not know how to think about the horseless carriage. In fact, no amount of first hand experience, thinking, or talking could close the switch between the guy’s synapses and grasp that the oddity was going to have some profound impacts. These range from roller skating car hops at Sonic Drive In to teen pregnancy and that environmentally friendly sport of NASCAR racing. Go figure.

I want to assert that arrogance is part of the problem. There may be presumptive behavior operating, but I think the difficulty goes back to the failure of some folks to see connections. A buggy whip maker can stare at an automobile all day and not think about fuzzy dice for the rear view mirror, leather seat covers from a West Coast Custom rebuild, or a steering wheel wrap with perforations to allow the driver’s hands to perspire without losing a grip on wheel in rush hour traffic in downtown Boston.

Telling someone with buggy whip synapses to use technology means zero. In fact, when pundits tell publishers to embrace technology, most of the publishers believe that they have been married to technology for years. The problem is that “technology” to a publisher may mean color capable Web presses or a content management system to push story drafts around the newsroom. Technology may mean digital cameras or remote control robots to adjust lightning instead of paying a kid to climb the rafters in a motion picture studio.

You get the idea.

The problem is language and understanding what a Silicon Valley maven means when he or she says, “Technology.” My thought is that the Mr. Scobles and the Mr. Kawasakis and the Mr. Schimdts mean to use the mental equipment possessed by those who can do math in their head, analyze a circuit, see how software works by scanning code, or performing other mental tricks that have to do with scientific and technical capabilities.

Publishers and the guy who runs the tire company may have some of these skills, but the life experiences, interests, and business demands require different mental equipment. Therefore, when you say “technology” to my Big O tire dealer, he points to a digital tire gauge, not to his iPhone.

Bottomline: those who don’t understand the meaning of the word “technology” when offered an a cure all, often don’t have a clue about:

  • What particular technology or technologies are appropriate
  • How to apply to technologies to an existing business process
  • What to do to minimize the negative effects of a technology when it spring a surprise
  • Where to find people who can “translate” the rocket science into something that can be used by a regular person.

Do most people in Silicon Valley or New York or London define their terms before talking about technology? Not many in my experience.

Grab a copy of Jacque Ellul’s book. Let me know if you agree with his analysis formulated in the dusty days before the “Internet”. Just the opinion of an addled goose.

Stephen Arnold, June 12, 2009


One Response to “More Advice for the Buggy Whip Crowd”

  1. sperky undernet on June 15th, 2009 3:44 am

    Use the following link to “look inside” much of the copyrighted translation of “The Technological Bluff”
    Interestingly, this Google Preview scan is not available via or

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