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Elephant Trails: How Old Technologies & Business Practices Continue to Influence Us

Mar 26, 2014 By Richard Smith

There is a saying in business that when developing a new product or service you should seek to "pave the elephant trails." This refers to the actual pathways through the forest left by elephants, and—by extension—the pathways through our lives that many people have followed and (presumably) offer significant business opportunities if they are improved.

In the realm of digital media, this expression can help us realize the extent to which previous technologies, business practices, and regulations—put in place for reasons long forgotten—continue to influence (and provide opportunities) in the present day.

Some Things Don’t Change: Telegraph Networks & Fibre Optic Networks

The arrangement of undersea fibre optic cables in the world is a good example of this phenomenon. If you look at a current map of undersea fibre networks and compare that to a similar map of telegraph cables a century ago, you would be amazed at the similarity. With a bit of knowledge of history and business, you might even realize that these are not merely artifacts of technical or physical realities but in fact those telegraph networks (and today’s fibre networks) supported colonial power structures in place at the time of the British Empire.

Culture Baggage and Design: The Flip Phone

Cultural practices, as well, create "pathways" in our society that the designers of new technology have to either adapt to, or overcome. When I was a young PhD student, I had the opportunity to visit the "Design Interpretive" labs at Bell Northern Research (BNR, later Nortel) in Ottawa, Canada. There, designers were busy creating the industrial designs for a new (then) generation of mobile phones that they knew could be much smaller because of the soon to be approved higher frequencies, enabled by emerging digital radio systems. 

One of the design possibilities they imagined was what we would now recognize as a "flip phone," but at the time was an unknown form-factor. At that time the size of such a phone was unimaginable. Using the latest in advanced technologies for product development, the designers created prototypes of these flip phones, for user testing in controlled settings. When they handed these prototypes to users, however, they were startled by the way in which the phones were handled. Almost every one of them was immediately broken in half by the person using it. Why?

The engineers had (sensibly) placed the earpiece, electronics and battery in one half of the phone, and had a light-weight plastic part that flipped out, channeling the voice into the upper half of the phone. You were to press a small button and make this 'speaking part' pop out. It seemed like a sensible and reasonable arrangement to the engineers. What they didn't count on, however, was almost two decades of culture "elephant paths" in peoples' minds. As soon as they saw this device, they knew immediately what it was - it was a "communicator" as seen on the television show "Star Trek." And their deep understanding of that device meant that they grabbed it by the upper part and snapped it open. 

Unfortunately, almost all of them grabbed it by the light plastic mouth part and snapped the heavy battery and electronic part open - breaking the hinges and sending the prototype flying across the room. Even though this was a brand new design, of a product that had never existed before in the real world, the cultural baggage was such that the designers had to go back to the drawing board and recreate a phone that could withstand such a maneuver. A pathway had been built up and ignoring was not an option.

We Need To Deliver Creative Solutions Within These Pathways

Sometimes the pathways are ways of doing business, sometimes they are regulatory regimes, sometimes they are technological trajectories put in place by unrelated businesses. Sometimes these things enable (the internet is a wonderful platform for completely new businesses and products unanticipated by the originators), and sometimes they impair, as BNR discovered. Sometimes they are as real as the road system or as frustrating as a regulatory regime that blocks the ability of Tesla motors to deal directly with customers in many states. (Car dealers fighting Elon Musk should take a caution from the fact that at the turn of the 20th century, it was the horse dealers association that was trying to block car dealers from expanding!).

As we at the Centre for Digital Media create and recreate the future, we have to be aware of these challenges and opportunities, and deliver creative solutions while keeping in mind the constraints but not necessarily giving up in the face of them. Eventually the flip phone became a product category and iconic in the form of the Motorola StarTac line of phones. By that time we all knew how to open one. And wanted one!

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