Bleeding Edge Corn

Don’t worry, technology often promises much more than it can deliver.

I frequently come across business owners who are worried that new technology will destroy their livelihoods.  In many cases it is a justifiable fear, but from a purely historical perspective, it seems to me that quite often technology doesn’t quite live up to the hype that surrounded its launch. Not only that but, invariably in my experience, there are unintended consequences, and more practical difficulties arise when it is deployed, than anyone every expected. The main problem with The New is that it is unproven and until it is fully commercialised there is often no telling what will result: the commercialisation of new technology is speculative.

Change is discontinuous and episodic and some changes are more profund than others. The commercial paradigm shift we are now wrestling with has a lot to do with the ubiquitous influence of the silicon chip and you can only squeeze so much fat out of one of those. The blurrrrr of genuinely value creating technological innovation, that has characterised much of my working life, is demonstrably slowing: just look at how drugs, that have now lost their patent protection, are not being replaced at a similar rate; or Moore’s “second law” that says that as the cost of computing power to consumers falls the cost of chip manufacturing rises exponentially; and a recent study in the journal Science that showed that the peak rate of change of the world capacity to compute information was in 1998. So, discontinuities like this are relatively rare in human history and they take a while for the consequences to be fully understood – my guess is that many technology innovations will disappoint in the end. (I saw Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic interpretation of The Great Gatsby last night and it convinced me that 3D and filmic computer trickery will eventually be put in the “disappointing” box.)

I got to thinking about all this when I read, in the Wall Street Journal, about how genetically modified corn seed was no longer working as its creators said it would. It was developed by Monsanto to be resistant to rootworm, so that farmers would no longer need to use harmful pesticides. However, pesticide sales have spiked significantly in the last few years as the seed’s effectiveness has begun to wane. US corn farmers had not been using soil insecticides for some years as about two thirds of all corn grown in the US is from these seeds. Syngenta, one of two companies controlling two thirds of the global market, reported that its sales doubled in 2012. American Vanguard, the other company, seems to have seen this coming, buying several pesticide assets during the past decade, and they probably feel rather smug now. American Vanguard seem to have been prescient, so you have to believe that Monsanto had an inkling this would happen too; in fact they have other multiply-resistant seeds in development, but surely the credibility of this technology must be somewhat undermined by what has happened?

My point is this: there is a big difference between theory and practise in business and new technology is a speculators game, where money is often made on the journey, not necessarily at the destination. Technology may promise a lot but there is still room for contrarian strategies and products because, at the end of the day, the road to commercialisation of any new technology is more of an expedition into the unknown than a regular commute to work. I should know: amongst my many different work experiences, I am the man who launched Powerline technology on the world. It won many awards and column inches in the Press at the time. What, never heard of it? Exactly!

Mark

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