Are we witnessing a Cambrian explosion in technology?

By Shrinath V|12th Mar 2013
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Life has existed on earth for almost 4 billion years. For most of that time, it was a wasteland of single celled organisms. Roughly 580 million years ago, evolution turned on its nitro-boosters and went into overdrive. Over the next 40 million years, a wide variety of major new animal groups evolved.

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Original image copyright: © G. Paselk, www.humboldt.edu

40 million years in evolutionary terms is just a heartbeat.

The Cambrian Explosion, as per current fossil records, is the period that saw the fastest growth in diversity in the animal kingdom. Which brings me to the point - are we witnessing a Cambrian explosion in technology today?

Think of the recent past. At one end, over 1 billion people own smartphones today, and as prices drop, we shall witness more migration. A large percentage of these users subscribe to some form of data connectivity, and access services like social media, location based services and many others on the phone. Facebook alone has over 1 billion users. Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+ and other services give new reasons to engage with friends or strangers. Many countries are currently rolling out LTE. Airtel has introduced LTE in Kolkata, and Reliance has plans for a widespread rollout in the next couple of years.

With always-on connectivity, we are witnessing a huge shift to the cloud as a repository of our memories, history and activities. Big data helps mine data from the collective and individual repositories (are the cloud and big data becoming an alternate collective unconscious to Carl Jung’s theory). Marketing and advertising are getting more personalized, thanks to this, and while many attempts today may creep us out with their artificial attempts at prescience, they will evolve till we see these as enhancements rather than intrusions. m-commerce is gaining on the inroads made by eCommerce, and has the potential to transform our economics.

Each of these is a disruptive force on its own, but the confluence of these can bring mind-boggling possibilities to life. As each of these technologies evolves, companies new and old will look to harness the potential of one or more of these forces. Those of us who work in technology are seeing new sciences affecting our work. Design and user experience has gained prominence. Consumer behavior and the willingness to learn and adopt new solutions are key determinants of success. We are increasingly grappling with questions that span out of our areas of expertise - working in Big Data? How can it help me build a consumer mapping technology for advertisements? What should the social media strategy for m-commerce be so that it doesn’t spook out consumers? And more like these.

The developers amongst us are being dragged from our deterministic universes of algorithms and code into fields of subjective opinions on how users would react to a feature. The artists and designers are mulling over technical constraints before drawing up their UX blueprints.

On one hand, it has never been easier to dream up a technology solution to a problem you notice. You can take advantage of advances in many of the technology building blocks and start off a company with a limited budget. On the other, you have to contend with a rapidly changing competitive scenario that forces you to change your vision and product frequently. With so many products and solutions hitting the market at the same time, you have to stand above the noise to get noticed.

The Cambrian explosion also saw a lot of life forms perish in the dance of natural selection.

Which firms will be winners? Who will lose out? It’s difficult to predict this. There will be nimbler, stronger startups that will grab opportunities that emerge in this period to make it big. Others may find the rush of progress difficult to tide over, and die a natural death. But, all said, we can be sure that the next few years will be more eventful than the ones the ones past.

Future generations may yet quote Dickens about this phase.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The author can be reached at shrinath@yourstory.in

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