CES, paradigm shifts, spandrels, and collateral damage
What this week’s Consumer Electronics Show has to do with the death of cursive writing in American schools, how to break down the elements of disruption, and more.
By Brad Berens
As we explored new Electric Vehicles (EVs), charging technologies, autonomous vehicles, and more, I found myself thinking again and again about Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
A paradigm shift occurs when there’s enough disconfirming data to make you discard the mental model you’ve been using. In the 1400s, Copernicus realized that the Earth-centered model of astronomy he was taught didn’t make sense given the sun-centered data he uncovered, which led to better understanding of the world. Einstein realized that Newtonian physics didn’t fully account for energy, which led to nuclear power.
One important and misunderstood thing about paradigm shifts is that you can only see them in the rear-view mirror once your thinking has already changed.
For example, in the first decade of this millennium pundits predicted that each successive year would be “the year of mobile,” but it never seemed to arrive. Then, somewhere around 2012 we all realized that we’d missed it: the year of mobile had been 2007 when the iPhone exploded onto the scene. (For my fellow recovering English majors, this was also like Wordsworth not realizing that he had already crossed the Alps in The Prelude—the greatest “whoops” in Victorian poetry.)
Anybody who tells you with confidence that they know what the next paradigm will be is wrong at best and deceptive at worst. Trend watchers and futurists (like me) can point to the things they expect to have massive impact (artificial intelligence and smart glasses are my two biggies right now). Science fiction writers (like me) can spend time building fictional worlds where we explore what living with those impacts will feel like. Sometimes, as with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the scary gender politics of the last few years, those fictions can seem uncannily predictive.
But we don’t know.
A useful second idea, spandrels, comes from the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. A spandrel is a non-adaptive by-product of a big evolutionary change that can be co-opted for a secondary use later. (Hang on: this will get clear momentarily.) The notion of spandrels comes from architecture. Gould adapted it to discussions of evolution, and we can adapt it one step further to technology.*
Uber and Lyft, for example, are spandrels, these ride-hailing companies co-opted the technological affordances of smart phones (maps, GPS, and credit cards) to create a new kind of taxi company. The collateral damage to these spandrels, the losers, were the disrupted older taxi companies that refused to change.
What does all this have to do with CES?
The auto hall at this year’s CES showed conclusively that the EV paradigm shift has already taken place. No exciting Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars were on display. Instead, new EV brands like VinFast, EVs from established companies like the Ram 1500 pickup truck, EV software stack companies like Apex.ai, and myriad charging technologies abounded.
Once a paradigm shift happens, it’s not like somebody has thrown a light switch and everything instantly changes. It can take decades for a new paradigm to cement a new world order. That’s where we are with EVs: the beginning.
But what will the spandrels be? What unexpected changes might happen?
For example, I was surprised that the big oil companies (Shell, Chevron, BP) were not exhibiting at CES given their recent massive investments in EV charging. They already have the real estate and consumer awareness. Why wouldn’t these companies want to let the world know that soon you’ll be able to charge your Lyric at the same place you filled up your old Caddy?
Anybody who tells you with confidence that they know what the next paradigm will be is wrong at best and deceptive at worst. Trend watchers and futurists (like me) can point to the things they expect to have massive impact (artificial intelligence and smart glasses are my two biggies right now). Science fiction writers (like me) can spend time building fictional worlds where we explore what living with those impacts will feel like. Sometimes, as with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the scary gender politics of the last few years, those fictions can seem uncannily predictive. But we don’t know.
One spandrel around gas stations also becoming charging stations concerns retail. Many gas stations have grab-and-go mini markets, bodegas where you can get a drink, a snack, toilet paper, and the like… nothing that requires a lot of time to think about because filling your tank is quick.
That changes with EV charging: even a quick charge will take at least three times longer than filling up an ICE car.
What new retail experiences will happen around a gas/charging station as more and more of their customers spend 20-plus minutes waiting for their EVs to be ready? Instead of the stale drip coffee that you can get at a gas station today, will Shell and Starbucks partner to hire attendants that double as baristas? Will BP partner with Amazon to have browsable bookshelves? Will yesterday’s filling station become tomorrow’s upscale boutique?
The Cursive Crisis
Outside CES, this week we saw another example of how paradigm shifts lead to spandrels around ChatGPT (the AI that can write a poem, software code, or a college application for you) and schools. The New York Department of Education has banned ChatGPT in an attempt to prevent algorithmic plagiarism.
Likewise, one of the local high schools in my area has changed the rules around how students can use computers to write essays and instituted new required hand-written in-class essays. College Admissions officers, one teacher speculated, might require essays to be handwritten (which is ridiculous because applicants could simply transcribe what an AI spits out… that’s still easier than writing).
The new requirements for hand-written essays put some students at a disadvantage: the ones who don’t know how to write in cursive.
Many elementary schools stopped teaching cursive when the Common Core Standards changed in 2010 because so much schoolwork happens on computers. In this country, 21 states still teach cursive, which means that 29 don’t.
Cursive writing is faster than printing, which means that any student who cannot write cursive will be slower taking quizzes, tests, or writing in-class essays than students who know how to write cursive. This is an unintended consequence of the move away from cursive… a spandrel.
Understanding the similarities and differences between paradigm shifts and spandrels can help us to break down the elements of disruption.
* Gould discussed Spandrels many times, but I think the clearest explanation is in his collected essays, pages 464-5.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
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January 11, 2023