Anti-Buzz: Paradigm Shifts

by Andrew Emmott on November 29, 2011

in Anti-Buzz,Future Tech,Software

The Buzz: Paradigm shifts are large, obvious and revolutionary.
The Anti-Buzz: Paradigm shifts often happen at a much smaller scale, and sometimes go unnoticed.

So this is a technology blog and we technophiles love to talk about, say, e-books and how the traditional publishing world has come unraveled. We like stories about giants falling. A lot of people take some joy in the downfall of Blockbuster and Borders, not out of spite for either of those companies but just because it seems to be evidence that the world really is changing, changing quickly, and anyone who fails to adapt will fail utterly, even giant thought-to-be-invincible corporations. We like to get a good chuckle about how reliant we are on services that didn’t even exist five years ago. We are, in short, giddy over our near past and near future.

It has already been some years that the cellphone replaced the television as “the technology we hate but can’t live without,” (you’d think the declaration that people can live without television would have given some companies fair warning …) In an episode of Star Trek Data explains away television as a form of entertainment that went out of style in the 2040s. This will probably be the only accurate prediction in Star Trek canon. I think the cellphone would be dethroned shortly by social networking sites, except for the fact that a lot of people interface with those sites on their cellphone, so it’s probably a wash. The right name for it is “that thing where I am in constant contact with everyone I know.” Hate it, can’t live without it.

So, anyway, we’re all abuzz with the big changes, how empires topple and how things will never be the same. We often miss the small details, the non-headlines that make up the gradual evolution of how we run our lives. Paradigm shifts can happen in the micro. Nobody would dare use a web browser that doesn’t have tabs anymore. Once you taste that you don’t go back. If your favorite browser dropped tabs and went back to windows for each page, you would switch browsers, no question. When did that happen? When did the fulcrum shift on that lever? When did you start using a spam filter? When did you stop renting movies? When did you start reading the web for content? For news? When did all of these little things you would never live without suddenly take hold?

This week I encourage you to think small. Think of how you can start small revolutions, be it in the way you run a meeting or just a banal product preference. Things that are good are not things that can’t be better. One adapts by discovering something better, not by enduring something worse. Newspapers aren’t failing because they are bad. They are failing because so many things are better. Browsers without tabs aren’t bad, browsers with tabs are just better. (At least one of you is wondering what I mean by “browsers with tabs” – you didn’t even notice, did you?) So take your policies and your technologies, and think seriously about how they could be improved. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it? Tell that to Borders. Borders never failed to be a bookstore.

What would be better is if I didn’t just speak in platitudes.

So what makes a paradigm shift? It is not enough for something merely to be better. You don’t own the fastest car, and you don’t want to own the fastest car. You want to own the car with the power locks and the mp3 player. If you play games on your iPhone, you are not using the world’s most powerful gaming system, you are using the gaming system that fits in your pocket and let’s you check your e-mail.

But I might be misleading. Paradigm shifts are not about features, they are about alternatives. If Wal-Mart ever goes out of business, it won’t be because┬ásomebody out-Wal-Mart-ed them, it will be because somebody rendered the big box store obsolete, (And how that could happen is up to our imaginations at this point). Paradigm shifts are never about the dominant paradigm getting out-matched, they are about the dominant paradigm getting subverted entirely. Borders didn’t get crushed by other bookstores. They got crushed by ignoring ebooks and neglecting the increasing risk of brick-and-mortar overhead.

Paradigm shifts also are more gradual than you think. Only with the final stroke do we see everything. It is easy in hindsight to see why things come unraveled, but the unraveling was not instant. Things are unraveling right now, somewhere, but we won’t see it until it is done. There can be great rewards in finding these loose ends early.

How about an example: I don’t typically plug my favorite products, (though I have done it before), but as a case study, consider Prezi. If you want a personal example, here’s one that I made, and a flashier one someone I know made. Not everybody reacts as strongly I did when I first saw it, but I’m betting some of you can feel it: this could unseat PowerPoint as the preferred method of delivering presentations. This could be a micro paradigm shift in the making, and I thought an ongoing example was more fun than just a bunch of heady wisdom and pompous hindsight, (It is easy to pick on Borders now that they are gone). If you want to know how empires can be toppled, Prezi has everything going for it.

Prezi doesn’t out-PowerPoint PowerPoint. There are plenty of PowerPoint lookalikes already and none of them have made a dent, not even the free ones. Prezi isn’t a PowerPoint lookalike, it is presentation software that does everything PowerPoint doesn’t, and that’s why it is so dangerous.

It is web-based, and thus available on every platform immediately, even ones that haven’t been invented yet, (This isn’t just Mac vs. PC. You can use Prezi on your Droid). It is “in the cloud”, which aside from being a right-time-right-place buzzword, means that all of your presentations are backed up and available anywhere. You can work on your presentation on your desktop, add the finishing touches from your smartphone, present it from your laptop, and never once fuss with a USB stick or forget that the most current version is on your laptop, not your desktop. You can share your presentation with others simply by linking them to it. You can allow multiple users to edit the presentation at once, (similar to Google Docs). You can give your presentation e-conference style. If you didn’t get what “cloud” meant before, now you do.

But that isn’t enough. PowerPoint on the web is only a little exciting. Prezi’s style and tone is nothing like PowerPoint. The organization is intentionally free form. Open-ended presentations are encouraged, with the ability to explore with your audience and, (literally), zoom in on the details they find more interesting. A more traditional pathing approach is easily done as well, but movement isn’t “slide-to-slide” as much as it is idea to idea, and you can diverge from your path easily if you need to.

While the initial impression might be that Prezi is just Power Point with fancy graphics, the reality is that its design and interface encourage the user to put together better presentations. Most criticisms of PowerPoint are actually criticisms of the horrible ways people use PowerPoint. Wall-of-text, presenter-reads-from-slides. Prezi’s layout discourages that, and rewards the kind of presentations that audiences like. Bullet points, a few pictures, a visual hierarchy of ideas, and let the presenter do the talking. Even if you don’t agree, the important point is that Prezi is absolutely not Power Point, and that is why it might be a king killer.

Of course, one product over another isn’t really a paradigm shift. The paradigm is that we continue to model presentations on the way slide projectors used to work, even though none of us even use slide projectors anymore. Prezi reminds us that this is absurd, that we are using computers and the Internet and such barriers are artificial and pointless. It also reminds us that Power Point is 24-years old, and if it doesn’t change, it will die. (Prediction: it will change).

Finally, this isn’t an ad for Prezi, (though the businessperson in you might appreciate the tech tip), but an examination of how big changes happen and where they start. If you are looking to innovate, even on a small scale, (Maybe you question the magazines in the lobby? Maybe your desk isn’t conveniently organized? Maybe your sick-day policy leaves nobody happy?), the trick is in finding artificial constraints, finding the things you aren’t doing, and finding ways to make unpleasantries irrelevant.

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