Exponential growth

Exponential speeding up of disruption: It’s media’s challenge to deal with it

By Steve Outing

It’s fair to say that the majority of media executives, and practitioners too, have had trouble in the last decade-plus keeping up with the pace of technological advancements and the disruptions they’ve caused for media companies.

It’s equally a fair bet that most of the aforementioned people expect digital-technology advances to continue, and for more disruption to come.

Technological disruption will speed up at a pace we’ve never experienced before

But, the pace of digital disruption to the news and other media sectors from technology’s march forward is likely to be much faster than most folks expect. A common perception is that computing and informational-technology advancements will keep on happening, but as continual, mostly linear growth.

If you think that the pace of change and disruption that you’ve experienced in the last decade or two have been difficult to keep up with — as in, steering your company or industry so as not to get run over by the proverbial train headed your way — well, you ain’t seen nothing yet! Because information-technology advancement and subsequent disruption of media, and all sorts of other industries, are on an exponential growth curve.

Heed the foresight of Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is a futurist, author, inventor, and most recently, chief futurist and VP of engineering for Google. He’s a brilliant futurist with an outstanding record of predicting future technology developments correctly over the last two decades.

Way back in 1999, in one of his books, Kurzweil came up with his “Law of Accelerating Returns,” which postulated that the rate of change in most evolutionary systems (especially the growth of digital informational technologies) tends to increase exponentially. (Just think of the growth of our planet’s human population to easily visualize what that looks like.)

At some future point (Kurzweil has estimated 2045), “The pace of change will be so astonishingly quick that we won’t be able to keep up, unless we enhance our own intelligence by merging with the intelligent machines we are creating.”

In looking ahead not as far as that, media enterprises are going to have a starship-load of disruptive innovation to deal with in the coming years — most likely, much sooner than the majority of people leading and working in media today realize. The disruptions to media entities will come fast and furious, and woe to the media executive who cannot or will not even deal with the current technological disruptions to his/her business; double-woe to those still hoping to avoid adopting new and recent digital-information technology advances and cling to old ways.

The Kurzweil graphic below visualizes future growth in computing power; and the coming acceleration means technological disruption of our world, including news and media, at a pace we’ve never experienced before. [article continue below graphic]

Exponential computing growth

A small (flying) example

Drones, a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are a great example of a disruptive technology that is advancing quickly, and represent a huge disruption of many industries — in a fairly short timeframe.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently forecast that 30,000 drones would be flying in U.S. airspace in the next 20 years, but that appears to be a conservative estimate that would not include the many small camera-drones operated by everyone from law enforcement to farmers to licensed hobbyists. A research group estimates that drone/UAV sales (both military and civilian) will total about $89 billion worldwide over the next decade.

Drones have many civilian uses (not just for blowing things up), including:

  • Inexpensively monitoring crop or livestock conditions over large areas for farmers and ranchers
  • Cheaply inspecting railroad tracks, power lines, and pipelines for damage
  • Use by law enforcement for spotting speeders on highways, or aiding in a criminal or missing-child search
  • Monitoring oil-spill movements, or wildlife migrations
  • Searching for lost hikers, downed airplanes, or ships stranded at sea
  • Monitoring wide areas for wildfires, or even dousing small new fires, inexpensively
  • Delivering packages the “last mile,” inexpensively to your door (from Amazon.com orders to groceries to hot pizzas)
  • Providing low-cost aerial video and photos for filmmakers, real estate agents, marketers, professional photographers, etc.
  • And, of course, serving as a low-cost flying photojournalism tool (and perhaps eliminating local-TV news helicopter flights), proving still images, video, and live-streaming video of news events

Civilian-drone technology already has advanced significantly. What’s ahead are low-cost drones with more capabilities, longer flight times, and bigger payloads. Even some of today’s consumer-level drones have the ability to use GPS to fly a pre-specified route without need of manual remote piloting. The newsroom of the not-too-distant future likely will have a drone (or a fleet of them) that can be launched on an image-gathering or live-video assignment, controlled by an FAA-licensed photojournalist/drone pilot who doesn’t need to leave the newsroom.

More-intelligent and -capable civilian drones are but one example of a business opportunity waiting to be grabbed. After 2015, when the FAA is mandated to have a system in place for safely allowing civilian drones to fly in controlled airspace, some significant businesses could arise.

For instance, insurance companies could send out drones to every car accident involving a customer to acquire images, saving money over having human adjusters drive to inspect a crashed vehicle, and getting the visual inspection images much faster. A drone-fleet operator might contract with insurance companies to provide this service, without the insurer needing to get into the drone business.

Based on the news industry’s lackluster attitude about adopting new technologies, non-journalist entrepreneurs might set up a drone news service first

It’s obvious that in a short time, news organizations will uses drones for reporting purposes. One way that they might profit from owning and operating a drone fleet is to also provide a drone auto-accident imaging service for insurance companies and do similar work for other customers. It might even turn into a lucrative and profitable side business that financially supports the news-gathering operation, while providing editors with a valuable news tool that otherwise would be purely a cost center.

Gregg Zachary, a professor of practice at the Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University (who has been a top technology columnist in the past), says he can envision entrepreneurs grabbing at this opportunity — perhaps creating their own “drone news service” to provide the public with fast-on-the-scene photos or live video of local news events. Zachary suspects that based on the news industry’s lackluster attitude about adopting new technologies in a timely manner, non-journalist entrepreneurs might set up that drone news service first, and serve other constituencies.

Civilian drones are an ideal example of how the algorithmic advancements in power and capability of emerging technology and computing power can impact the news industry. Because the technology discussed above should be available in a couple more years, drones are something that news leaders should be planning for and thinking about now. If they procrastinate until drone technology like this is ready to use, others will have taken away the business opportunity.

The same scenario can be applied to many other emerging technologies that have relevance to news and media organizations. For example, just a few:

  • The miniaturization of cameras (down to the size of a pinhead in labs, already)
  • Future generations of Google Glass and other “smart” eyeglasses capable of recording video and taking photos covertly, worn by a significant chunk of the population
  • The proliferation, shrinking size, and new capabilities of sensors and sensor networks, all connected to the Internet (i.e., part of the “Internet of Things“)
  • Rapid advancements in drone and robot technology, which could be especially valuable for war news coverage to keep human correspondents safe and go where no human journalist would dare

If you’re in news or media, are you planning for these future disruptions yet? Because they’ll arrive much sooner than you expect.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!