The Value of Limits

No one likes to think about limits, especially in the tech industry, where the idea of putting constraints on almost anything is perceived as anathema.

In fact, arguably, the entire tech industry is built on the concept of bursting through limitations and enabling things that weren’t possible before. New technology developments have clearly created incredible new capabilities and opportunities, and have generally helped improve the world around us.

But there does come a point—and I think we’ve arrived there—where it’s worth stepping back to both think about and talk about the potential value of, yes, technology limits…on several different levels.

On a technical level, we’ve reached a point where advances in computing applications like AI, or medical applications like gene splicing, are raising even more ethical questions than practical ones on issues such as how they work and for what applications they might be used. Not surprisingly, there aren’t any clear or easy answers to these questions, and it’s going to take a lot more time and thought to create frameworks or guidelines for both the appropriate and inappropriate uses of these potentially life-changing technologies.

Does this mean these kinds of technological advances should be stopped? Of course not. But having more discourse on the types of technologies that get created and released certainly needs to happen.

Even on a practical level, the need for limiting people’s expectations about what a technology can or cannot do is becoming increasingly important. With science-fiction-like advances becoming daily occurrences, it’s easy to fall into the trap that there are no limits to what a given technology can do. As a result, people are increasingly willing to believe and accept almost any kind of statements or predictions about the future of many increasingly well-known technologies, from autonomous driving to VR to AI and machine learning. I hate to say it, but it’s the fake news of tech.

Just as we’ve seen the fallout from fake news on all sides of the political perspective, so too are we starting to see that unbridled and unlimited expectations for certain new technologies are starting to have negative implications of their own. Essentially, we’re starting to build unrealistic expectations for a tech-driven nirvana that doesn’t clearly jibe with the realities of the modern world, particularly in the timeframes that are often discussed.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the current perspectives on where the technology industry is and where it’s headed are based on a variety of false pretenses, some positively biased and some negatively biased. On the positive side, there’s a sense that technologies like AI or autonomous driving are going to solve enormous societal issues in a matter of a few years. On the negative side, there are some who see the tech industry as being in a stagnant period, still hunting for the next big thing beyond the smartphone.

Neither perspective is accurate, but ironically, both stem from the same myth of limitlessness that seems to pervade much of the thinking in the tech industry. For those with the positive spin, I think it’s critical to be willing to admit to a technology’s limitations, in addition to touting its capabilities.

So, for example, it’s OK to talk about the benefits that something like autonomous driving can bring to certain people in certain environments, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that it isn’t going to be a great fit for everyone, everywhere. Realistically and practically speaking, we are still a very long way from having a physical, legal, economic and political environment for autonomous cars to dramatically impact the transportation needs of most consumers. On the other hand, the ability for these autonomous transportation technologies to start having a dramatic impact on public transportation systems or shipping fleets over the next several years seems much more realistic (even if it is a lot less sexy).

For those with a more negative bias, it’s important to recognize that not all technologies have to be universally applicable to make them useful or successful. The new relaunched Google Glass, for example, is no longer trying to be the next generation computing device and industry disruptor that it was initially thought to be. Instead, it’s being focused on (or limited to) work-based applications where it’s a great fit. As a result, it won’t see the kind of sales figures that something like an iPhone will, but that’s OK, because it’s actually doing what it is best designed to do.

Accepting and publicly acknowledging that certain technologies can’t do some things isn’t a form of weakness—it’s a form of strength. In fact, it creates a more realistic scenario for them to succeed. Similarly, recognizing that while some technologies are great, they may not be great for everything, doesn’t mean they’re a failure. Some technologies and products can be great for certain sub-segments of the market and still be both a technical and financial success.

If, however, we keep thinking that every new technology or tech industry concept can be endlessly extended without limits—everything in my life as service, really?—we’re bound to be greatly disappointed on many different levels. Instead, if we view them within a more limited and, in some cases more specialized, scope, then we’re much more likely to accurately judge what they can (or cannot) do and set expectations accordingly. That’s not a limit, it’s a value.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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