The Pace of Re-Imagination: We All Live in Dog Years Now

6/1/12Follow @wroush

My dog Rhody, an Australian Shepherd, turned 15 a few weeks ago. He’s a living refutation of the old myth that dogs age as much in one year as humans do in seven. By that formula he’d be acting like a doddering 105-year-old, but if you met him you’d agree that he doesn’t seem a day over 70. (Because different breeds have different lifespans, it’s technically impossible to pin down the length of a “dog year.” There are two recorded cases of dogs living to the age of 29.)

But there’s another sense in which Rhody’s age is really showing. From a technological point of view, the year 1997, when he was whelped, now seems to belong to an impossibly distant past. Think about it: In 1997 there were only about 200 million people with mobile phones in the entire world. Now there are more than 5 billion. Back then, even a low-end digital camera cost $600 or more, which is why all my puppy pictures are prints; now there’s a multi-megapixel camera in every smartphone. In 1997, there was no Wi-Fi and no consumer GPS. Nobody had a DVR, a 2-gigabyte hard drive was huge, and we didn’t know we needed a TSA or a DHS.

Rhody at age 15

Not that Rhody pays attention to such things. I’m just saying that there’s been enough change over the course of his short doggy existence to fill up an entire human lifetime. In a sense, we’re all living in dog years now, at least when it comes to realms touched by information technology. It should be no surprise that legal, social, and economic institutions can’t always keep up. And we should probably be bracing for even faster change—and more chaos—over the next 15 years, as several huge trends with unstoppable momentum play themselves out.

It was reading Mary Meeker’s latest mega-slide-deck, delivered at this week’s All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, that got me thinking along these lines. The former Morgan Stanley analyst, who now works at venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is famous for her annual overviews of the state of the Internet and the risks and opportunities facing technology entrepreneurs and investors. In this year’s deck, Meeker devotes 59 of her 112 slides to what she calls “the re-imagination of nearly everything—powered by new devices + connectivity + UI + beauty.”

Using stark “then” and “now” imagery, Meeker reminds us how quickly things have changed in areas like computing, telephony, transportation, manufacturing, commerce, business, healthcare, education, gaming, media (including newspapers, magazines, books, music, photography, video, and sound recording) and everyday life (diaries, note taking, scrapbooks, coupons). Rarely does she have to reach more than five or 10 years into the past for a “then” image that looks positively antique. A first-generation Xbox controller seems pretty clunky next to the Kinect, for example; the Yellow Pages pales next to Yelp.

By themselves, none of Meeker’s observations are unfamiliar or surprising. It’s the sheer number of examples that reminds you how broad and far-reaching the changes have been. And in this game, we haven’t even reached the early innings—to quote Meeker, “We are still in spring training,” meaning that the next 15 years could be even more tumultuous than the last 15.

Why? Well, here’s just one indicator: 6. That’s the percentage of the population with 3G data access in China. In India, it’s even lower: 4 percent. But these also happen to be the countries where 3G access is spreading fastest (Vietnam, Brazil, Turkey, and Egypt are also adding 3G subscribers quickly). Globally, 3G penetration is at only 18 percent. In other words, there are still a few billion people waiting to be admitted to the high-speed wireless economy, with its apps, music, video, maps, news, photos, games, and all the rest.

Not only will these people bring enormous amounts of cash and attention into the system, but each group will have unique needs and interests, creating nearly unending room for product innovation and business experimentation. And the stuff invented by entrepreneurs in China, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere will trickle back to the developed countries, which, as Meeker points out, have the advantage of nearly ubiquitous wireless broadband.

On top of that, it seems that each generation of computing and communications technology sets the stage for faster growth in the next generation. Mobile broadband is spreading faster than the original landline Internet; Android was adopted even more rapidly than iOS; tablets caught on faster than smartphones. Instagram added 10 million new users in the first 10 days after its acquisition by Facebook. Later the same month, video sharing service Viddy added 17 million new users in just 7 days, after Facebook began highlighting members’ videos in their news feeds. So far, advertising dollars aren’t following users into the mobile arena, but Meeker thinks it’s only a matter of time. By studying the successes of Japanese mobile gaming companies like GREE and CyberAgent, she says, mobile developers could be making more money than desktop Web publishers within 3 years.

But don’t be surprised if it happens sooner than that. Change itself is changing: it seems to be speeding up.

Saturday Night Live spoofed this trend way back in 2005, in a skit where Steve Jobs introduced the tiny “iPod Micro,” only to announce seconds later that it had been made obsolete by the even smaller “iPod Pequeno,” which was displaced in turn by the microscopic “iPod Invisa.” In reality, even Apple doesn’t work quite that quickly—but the company has managed to change our expectations nonetheless. The re-imagination that Meeker highlights, driven by “new devices + connectivity + UI + beauty,” would itself have been impossible to imagine back in the early 2000s, before Apple loosened the U.S. wireless carriers’ old death grip on mobile innovation and proved once and for all that customers will shell out for great design. Now we feel disappointed if Apple doesn’t come out with a completely new iPad every April and a new iPhone every October.

And so it goes. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about mobile and Internet innovation, just turn to page 85 of Meeker’s deck, where she lays out all the reasons why the “Magnitude of Upcoming Change Will Be Stunning.” In addition to the trends I’ve already mentioned, she points to forces like the emergence of social networks as platforms for distributions, an economic situation in which the penalties for risk-taking are low, and the new “plug & play” environment for entrepreneurs, who have greater access to capital, technology, services, and marketplaces than ever before.

I’m in my mid-40s now and I wouldn’t mind staying around for another 50 years or so. In dog years, that’s about three centuries. I’m pretty excited to see what transformations are on the way—but then, I write about change for a living. The rest of you will just have to get used to it.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Wghormley

    Great stuff, Wade and Rhody! 
    An add-on might be “brain controller” tech?
    It’s a bit ominous/mindblowing that life expectancies are exceeding 560 dog years (;->
    What does Rhody say that means?
    Best from Beantown,  
    Bill