The other side of technological innovation

By John Buysse

On Jan. 14,the U.S. Court of Appeals ended net neutrality. By that, I mean it laid down a ruling that threw out Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules that required Internet service providers to give all web traffic equal access through their networks.

In practical terms, this ruling opened the door for companies like Verizon and AT&T to charge content providers like Netflix and Facebook based on the speed at which they want their data to be delivered.

Prognosticators believe this will hurt consumers who may be charged more for their data use as content providers will inevitably shift the higher costs to them. Others worry these new rules will hinder innovation in the technology world as new data costs may prove to be too high of barriers to entry for hopeful startups.

Although this issue is undoubtedly important to the digital world, it isn’t the biggest issue out there when it comes to people and technology.

The more severe issue at hand is one that people don’t seem to worry about as much — even though it is changing the physical world that surrounds us.

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It’s an issue that I like to call “Peak Technology.”

This issue is loosely based on the theory of Peak Oil that marks “the hypothetical point in time when the global production of oil reaches its maximum rate, after which production will gradually decline.” 

The theory is somewhat controversial and many people argue that it is not real.

“Peak Technology” — a term I have just now created — is a spin on that phrase to discuss the hypothetical point in time when global efficiencies and positive impacts of technological innovations may be outweighed by the negative consequences.

There is no doubt that the Internet and other major innovations in technology have drastically improved the lives of people, companies and society at large.

Blogs have given a voice to the voiceless. YouTube gave Justin Bieber a platform from which to launch his meteoric rise. Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheets have saved people countless hours. Google alone has made information about nearly everything a click away. Facebook and other social media sites have made keeping in touch with those you can’t physically be with so easy. 

The list could go on and on, but the point is clear: The last few decades of innovation have been awesome in many, many ways.

However, as the digital world was being built from the ground up, it left certain corners of the physical world in disarray. As most Americans would say the job crisis is the most critical issue the country is currently facing, the government seems to invest inordinate time and attention on the innovations coming out of Silicon Valley. Strangely, many of Silicon Valley’s biggest stars have directly caused former industry titans, with admittedly outdated business models, to stumble.

Borders, the now-defunct bookstore chain, was usurped by Amazon’s online bookstore and the rise of eBooks generally. At one point, Borders employed around 19,500 people. It now employs zero.

Blockbuster, the once-powerful movie rental chain, was bested by the rise of services like Netflix and Redbox. 

When Kodak ruled photography, it employed about 140,000 people. When Instagram was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion, the photo sharing service employed 13 people and generated no revenue.

The United States Postal Service has toyed with the notion of massive layoffs in recent years as email and other tech-based forms of communication have challenged its relevance.

At the hands of Amazon, other companies like Best Buy, Sears, JCPenney, OfficeMax and more are looking down the barrel of eventual extinction. 

Additionally, technology has changed the dynamics of many other industries. In 2003, the music industry was an $11.8 billion industry. By 2012, it was a $7.1 billion industry. Web-based services like iTunes, Spotify and Pandora have eaten into those sales, but wide-spread piracy hasn’t helped either.

Many people have hailed these intense changes to the status quo as being good for business, and the word “disruptive” has become the go-to buzzword for these changes. 

To this point, Silicon Valley has been embraced as the Mecca of America’s economic future, but, in many ways, it has gutted and will continue to gut the physical reality most Americans currently face.

America has a history of successfully adapting to growing pains brought on by industrial revolutions. The inventions of things like the cotton gin and Model T changed the physical form in which an industry operated. 

Although the current technology revolution has made life easier in many instances, it has also made physical elements of the American economy (jobs, companies, production, etc.) disappear into thin air.

Unlike the concept of Peak Oil, the existence of “Peak Technology” is really in the eye of the beholder.

Former employees of Borders, Blockbuster and Kodak might say “Peak Technology” has already been reached. Employees of Amazon, Apple and Facebook, currently riding the tech gravy train, might say it will never happen.

What is your limit?

John is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBuysse.