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How to deal with massive technological disruption  

I went to a couple of events, recently. Each had a a very different feel.

Journalism

The first was an even for journalists and hackers. There, the main concern echoed by the journalists in the room was of how they could continue to do what they feel is a valuable thing, despite the major changes that technology has wrought on their industry.

Journalists feel (quite rightly) that they perform a public service. In the words of the respectable speaker at this event, their job, among other things, is to give people the information they need (but don't necessarily want) alongside with the information they want (but which isn't really useful to them). In other words, give people something that will help them vote in the next election alongside their daily dose of football trivia.

This all felt very noble, if a little paternalistic, but my feeling was that they were living in a dream. Let me explain what I mean by mentioning the second event.

Health

Healthcare, particularly in the UK, is hardly a progressive field full of consumer technology innovations. And yet, the event that I went to (MC ThinkCamp mHealth) was surprisingly progressive. The people presenting were, most of them, doctors. And yet they fully, clearly understood that technology is changing the reality of healthcare.

For example, one presenter had built an application that allowed patients to handle their own records. He didn't wait for approval from the NHS, he didn't even seek the approval of other doctors. What this entrepreneur realised was, to put it in his own words, that "history is moving this way", and that people who argue that patients shouldn't control their own records will, in 30 or 40 years, be regarded as incomprehensibly wrong, much as we now regard those who argued, up until the 1970s in Switzerland, that women shouldn't vote. Those people were, and are, on the wrong side of history.

My feeling was that these people "got it". They understood that technology moves inexorably forward and does not care much for the established order. They understood that it will turn the world of healthcare upside down over the next few decades - wether healthcare professionals like it or not - and that if they don't want to be left behind, they'd better join in the change.

They understood that if technology makes possible something clearly desired by many, this thing will happen, and will keep happening, and will be unstoppable - whether that is free movie downloads, patients controlling their records, or, as the linked article discusses, news personalisation.

Journalism, redux

Jeremy Mims, echoing the feelings expressed by journalists at the first event, proposes that:

Part of the purpose of news is to create an educated and engaged citizenry, not merely provide a funnel for our natural predilection for the stuff we like (which the Internet is already stunningly good at).

He continues:

What I’d prefer to see is a service that tracks what everyone reads and shows me results not from people like me, but people who aren’t. I’m already great at finding information that confirms my outlook and disposition (on the Internet, it’s a Google search away). I need to be reminded that the world is big, opinions are diverse, there are subjects that I’m woefully uneducated about, and that not everyone thinks the way I do.

That's all very nice, but that's not how disruption work. What people want, they will get, and the way forward is not to pine for something that might work as it did in the past (or, even worse, provides something that most people don't want, such as news that they disagree with).

I actually agree with journalism's goals, however paternalistic. People need to get more than a daily dose of X Factor and Football to be functioning citizens - and many people don't get that info-nutrition. But the way to achieve this is to look forward, at things as they will be 10, 20, 30 years from now, and build from there, not from a past that is quickly fading.

This means, for example, accepting that news personalisation is on the way, and that people will read only the news they want to read. This doesn't mean they won't be exposed to different viewpoints, but it means that in order to reach people, you'll have to build something that they actively want to follow - not just piggyback on the local sports news and hope they read the headline printed on the front of the paper before they vote.

It's change, real change, and it requires a different mindset, one that's willing to start from where things are going, rather than whence they came.

More from the library:
Hand to wannabe "product guys"
Balance in the startup life
How to hack the beliefs that are holding you back
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