Product or Technology

Over the past year, I've come to understand the difficulty in explaining a sufficiently complex system as both a product and a technology. And in struggling with how best to confer the concepts, I have discovered two definitions which seem to make the difference clear:

  • Technology - a solution to a problem an engineer has
  • Product - a solution to a problem people have
  • Now as engineers are people too, arguably, some technologies are products, but as not all people are engineers, not all products are technologies.

    In a world without engineers, you only have products. Material goods like food, water, air, animal hides, wood, stones could all be thought of products. Products have a perceived value (not utility, sorry classical economists) that derives from the collective experience of the group. Some stones are more valuable than other stones, not only because some are more useful, as you can build a bridge out of them or a religious monument, but because other people treat them as such, like Pet Rocks. The value is not a property of the thing itself, but of the collective perception.

    Herding behavior, common to many domesticated species, allows individuals to cheat, and assume someone else knows where the dangers are, and go with the group. We see herd behavior in political discourse (political parties), finance (stock markets), consumer behavior (fads), and media (Hollywood movies). It is a powerful social force that is at the heart of our society. Our collective perception is a herd behavior, a sort of weak borg collective which spreads itself through media (and all media is social). And as the media spreads, these stories we tell each other become the basis of our collective value judgements.

    To create a technology just requires an engineer to observe a problem, and create a solution. Technologies are easy to sell to engineers as long as the problem they solve is not the problem the engineer is interested in solving. The market for a technology is equivalent to Douglas Adam's Somebody Else's Problem Field, as long as the problem is somebody else's to solve, the technology has a niche.

    Creating a product, however, requires telling a story again and again, to as many people who will listen, until you reach a critical mass of people who recognize the problem and the solution to that problem. A product is a story we tell about the world and how to deal with it. Now if the perceived value of the product is greater than the cost to manufacture, you're in business. If the perceived value is less than the cost of goods and services, you're shit out of luck. So the best stories become businesses (whether or not they actually solve the problem they set out to), and the stories that don't resonate with the body politic whither and die.

    Now people familiar with marketing will look at all of the above and say "obviously". But if it were actually obvious, marketers could turn anything into a profitable product. The problem is that a story isn't enough to make a product. You can have an awesome story, win awards, and get rave reviews from analysts. You can pump up the volume. And your product can actually work. But the problem is your story requires your audience exercise their imagination. Our collective imagination lives in media. People bought iPhones because they saw them in Star Trek decades before we had the tech. There was a preexisting story that explained why you needed it, before it even existed.

    You can tell a story, a really good story. You can have a technology, a really functional technology. And you can have a market, a market full of people who recognize the problem. But even with the story, and the tech, and the problem, they can't image the solution. And what I learned this year is: I need to write more science fiction.