The Future is Unevenly Distributed – Tech Should Fix That

on March 29, 2017

William Gibson famously said, “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Nowhere is that more true than in the tech world where it’s easy to think that innovations, products, and services available to us are ubiquitous, even when their distribution is, in fact, very limited.

Square and Google Home come to the UK

Both Square and Google announced on Tuesday their products were coming to the UK. In Square’s case, this is its first entry into that market, but its fourth international market outside the US, after Canada, Australia, and Japan. In Google’s case, this is its international debut for the Google Home speaker and its Google WiFi routers. I have to confess, I was unaware Square hadn’t launched in the UK and was also unaware Google hadn’t made its new hardware products available outside the US until now. But I suspect that’s typical of those of us who follow the tech market in the US – we’re so accustomed to being the first to see new technologies, we rarely spare a thought for those who don’t have access to them yet, even in a neighboring markets like Canada (as with the Google Home and Echo).

Even within the US, Haves and Have-Nots

Even within the US, though, there are often haves and have-nots when it comes to new technology and Amazon’s footprint is a great example of this. Amazon just announced two new pickup grocery locations for its Amazon Fresh service but they’re both in Seattle (and currently only open to employees). It’s Amazon Go grocery store is also only in Seattle (and perhaps for a bit longer than planned, limited to employees). Amazon’s brick-and-mortar bookstores? All but one of the stores it has opened or announced are in or near big coastal cities, the latest in Chicago. Its Fresh delivery service is also limited to just a few markets, as are its same-day delivery services.

But this goes well beyond just Amazon. One of Lyft’s competitive disadvantages relative to Uber is the smaller number of cities (and countries) where it operates, even in the US, something it’s trying to rectify with a rapid expansion this year. I’m in New York City this week and am finding there are a raft of options for ride-sharing services (for someone who feels increasingly uncomfortable with patronizing Uber) but that’s not the case everywhere in the US. Even something as seemingly ubiquitous as the Apple Store is still missing from several US states.

Silicon Valley’s Other Diversity Problem

Diversity is frequently in the news when it comes to the tech industry and was again this week with the release of Uber’s diversity report. When we talk about diversity, it’s typically about underrepresented gender or racial groups but there’s also another form of diversity the US tech industry is missing out on — exposure to these parts of the United States and the world where many of the services Bay Area residents take for granted are simply not available. A tech worker living in San Jose can likely commute to work using Uber, Lyft, Waze, or a number of other tech-based transportation services, order lunch through Postmates, and get groceries delivered at night from Instacart, Amazon Fresh, or Google Express. But many of those services aren’t available (or in some cases relevant) in much of the rest of the country.

Living in such an environment and among other people who are benefiting from the rise of technology alternatives to traditional services, it must be tempting to think of these innovations as unmitigated boons to mankind. Of course, it’s often in the rest of the country where the negative impacts of these changes are felt, as jobs get sucked out of rural and suburban areas, either to disappear completely or to be replaced in high-tech zones. Engineers who only ever see the tech-infused version of the world they live in can have little conception of the impact it causes elsewhere or the way the other half, or more accurately the other 99%, lives.

Going Global is Tough but Important

That’s why going global with a product or service is so important, though it may in some cases be tough. If innovations are beneficial, they should be as widely spread as possible, as quickly as possible. It’s obviously much tougher where extensive physical infrastructure such as retail stores, warehouses, or even fleets of cars and drivers are needed, but we often see even digital products and services like Amazon Echo and Google Home restricted to just a few markets, even ones that share a common language. That’s why I was so impressed by Netflix’s global launch a little over a year ago and continue to be impressed by major digital services from Apple like iTunes which span the globe, or even Siri, which supports many different languages in more countries than any of the other major virtual assistants. Doing that work is hard – it requires local language support, cultural understanding, partnerships with local players, and more — but it deserves doing because the benefits of many of these technologies are worth spreading as far and wide as possible.

It’s also important for companies to put their people into more diverse places because only then can those employees more accurately understand and represent the needs of those they’re trying to serve and create products and services designed to help a much broader swathe of the population. I’ve also been impressed recently by Steve Case’s mission to grow tech hubs outside of the big existing ones as a way to bring renewal and growth to more places across the US.

More people in the tech industry should be thinking about how to distribute the future more evenly, both within the US and across the world. That applies to their own businesses as much as to the products and services they sell.