The explosion of digital technologies and other techonological advances will continue to draw casualties from a surprisingly wide array of employment sectors.
Who will be the technological revolution’s next victims? After eliminating Nokia and Blackberry, annihilating entire sectors of the music industry, and weakening computer manufacturers by making them look old-fashioned via the rapid development of tablets, technical progress is programmed to claim new victims.
Those who think that the digital revolution will strike only in the worlds of high-tech or media are wrong.
The explosion of computer technologies, the boom of high-speed connections, widespread use of the “cloud” and "big data" — which allow anyone, at any time, to search in databases, and collect and analyze very personal information on billions of consumers — are setting new rules in every industry. Barriers are disappearing, and successful businesses are able to establish a global reach much faster than in the past. Many startups are proving to be more efficient than long-standing giants whose experience, brands and teams that were once assets are now, paradoxically, impediments.
This trend is not likely to slow down because the power of digital technologies is only accelerating. IBM computers now beat humans at IQ and memory games, some cars no longer require drivers, and medical diagnoses are reliably generated by machines. Software can now simultaneously translate and write articles. Doctors, translators and journalists tremble, but no one should feel safe.
The impact of the digital revolution has already claimed unlikely victims. Parisian taxis, which have in theory nothing to do with digital technologies and social networks, are discovering that they are in fact collateral digital casualties. For a long time, the monopoly of taxis was protected by the authorities. No permit, no taxi. But today, anybody can become a taxi driver. You only need to download a smartphone app that enables direct contact between drivers and people who need to get somewhere. While taxis remain stationary or drive with empty backseats looking for customers, their new rivals are in direct contact with passengers of their own. French legislation may try to tame this competition, but if regulations can put up barriers to technological progress, they cannot in the long run hope to push back the digital tsunami that enables new and more powerful services.
Let’s face it, the taxi 2.0 is more efficient. Fares are paid electronically (no need for change), prices are fixed (they may vary according to the distance and the time of day in order to adapt supply to demand, but they do not change in case of traffic jams), and the customer is informed of the arriving car’s location. With the Internet, individuals who sublet rooms compete with hotels, while private driver services may ultimately overtake taxis.
The world of advertising is undergoing the same revolution. In the past, an agency director used to have to hire creative professionals and all kinds of specialists. Today, a simple Internet site can play the role of intermediary. The customer submits a request for a new ad, and the agency shares it with hundreds or thousands of creative professionals, who are then instantly and automatically in competition. The agency no longer needs permanent and overabundant staff, because it can use a smaller team that knows where to find talent — perhaps sub-contracted by a rival.
A concept applicable to anyone
Anyone can take advantage of crowdsourcing. Will newspapers need journalists tomorrow, or will a brand and a publisher whose mission is to hire the services of various specialists be enough? And what about the automotive industry? How much longer will customers regard design and engine power as important elements of a car? Because there will soon be driverless cars; the choice of a vehicle in the future may well depend on “soft” suppliers — the companies who are developing the software that makes this feat possible — rather than “hard” ones, who actually build the physical object. The automotive industry’s future could lie in the Silicon Valley, not in Detroit.
For companies, the weight of history could indeed become a handicap. Water distribution and highways may be spared, but will large retailers need shops much longer if the expansion of Amazon and “drives” (pre-order and pick-up) continue at this pace? Will the space industry, which launches very expensive satellites with exorbitantly priced rockets, find itself in competition with startups offering low cost solutions with up-to-date technologies?
In the computer sector, capacities double every 18 months while prices remain the same. An iPhone manufactured today is more powerful than state-of-the-art computers from the early 2000s. Will companies that rely on heavy and costly structures be flexibile enough to survive?
Historically, progress has reinforced those capable of assimilating it. Today, we have to both adapt and accept the possibility that it will change us forever.