I had the privilege of watching the recent NSA surveillance story unfold from my hotel room in London this June. Seeing the story from a decidedly non-American viewpoint got me thinking a bit differently about the implications for our society. From my point of view — no matter how you define the squishy and now beat-to-death “big data” concept — the NSA story has moved it from something “they use” to something that is uncomfortably close to where we live our lives. In other words, big data just moved in next door and is peeking over our fences into our living rooms. Eeek.
There are lots of socio-political issues with this, and I’m not even going to go there. However, the way that I see it, this incident will ultimately create a lot of opportunity for businesses savvy enough to get ahead of it the can of worms now squirming in our laps.
I think one of two things is going to happen. Either: 1) the US general public will shrug and go back to business as usual and this story will die, or 2) the public outrage will demand governmental oversight and accountability resulting in a tightening of our legal system. The latter case would be an example of how digital disruption, a topic we have written and blogged about for a while, is not just a business thing. It’s a cultural phenomenon that will rock our society for a long time.
For the history of humanity, for one person to make a difference, the individual had to convince many others to join the pursuit. And the convincing part was tough — whether you were Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr., the amount of effort was high, and the probability of success was low. (Certainly the list of people who tried to change the world and failed is long; it’s just that we won’t know their names, which itself is part of my point.) From Christopher Columbus to Steve Jobs, individual power has really only amounted to much infrequently, and only when backed by very large and wealthy entities. Kings and queens financed the discovery of the Americas; Wall Street and venture capital bankrolled Silicon Valley.
I recently heard my all-time favorite excuse for why you can't disrupt yourself. It was in a session with 40 senior IT leaders of a Fortune 500 company including the CIO. Somebody brought up Uber and Airbnb, and most in the room nodded in agreement that a big company could learn a thing or two from these disruptors. That's when someone dropped my new favorite excuse: "But we can't imitate Uber and Airbnb because what they're doing is illegal."
Sure, it would be nice to just avoid taking the fast and bumpy road of disruption in favor of staying in the smooth parking lot of denial. But that's not really an option because the lessons of Uber, Airbnb, and other disruptors apply to everyone in every industry.
I don't mean to sidestep the legal question, but I do mean to point out that it's hardly the issue here. Uber and Airbnb are coming under fire because they're using cheap technology and existing resources to make their customer's lives dramatically better, one positive experience at a time. That's the real issue here, and it's the one companies of any size should focus on.