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Bono and the Technology of Disruption

Posted by Byron on 10 February, 2012

As Facebook goes public with an estimated valuation of $100bn, and I was wondering whether to buy stock (I’m not), I thought I’d bone up on how Facebook came to pass, and where their seed money came from. The trail led me, rather surprisingly, to Bono. The uber-cool U2 frontman is a hugely astute businessperson, and in his spare time is managing director of Elevation Partners.

Elevation Partners is a private equity firm which invests unfeasibly large sums in media, entertainment and technology industries. But not just anything shiny will do. Bono and his mates are looking for technology disruption.

Basically, technology disruption is some new thing that will set the world out of joint. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, something which changes everything.

As Elevation Partners point out in their mission statement, four technology disruptions are currently changing the way we interact with the world.

Network – smartphones and tablets are exponentially expanding the number of net-connected devices. Expanding wifi and 3/4G networks means that being always online is edging closer to everyday reality for an ever-growing number of people.

Internet Technology – new operating systems and HTML5 are emerging as new software platforms, enabling (for example) more engaging content and behavioural advertising.

Navigation – users are discovering the world in different ways and consuming content differently, via mobile apps, touch screens, social networking

Architecture – out with the vast inbuilt memories on your private PC, in with the Cloud – the godlike system which will mean everything is available everywhere, all the time.

So what has this got to do with me, you may ask. Well, everything, actually. A little Friday fantasy scenario. Imagine you’re a university student learning English. Over your cornflakes your tablet beeps at you, alerting you to your online group lesson in five minutes time, delivered to you and your classmates through GooglELT. You settle into an armchair and join your class, quite relaxed; you were puzzled by the first conditional while slaving over an interactive worksheet yesterday, but the programme automatically identified the problem and upsold you an extra activity – via a micropayment off your credit card – which gave you additional practice and a clear video explanation of conditional sentences. Your teacher has already been informed and so doesn’t have to go over that point of grammar yet again.

You’ve never met your teacher face to face, and you have never been in an ELT classroom in your life. You can learn in your local cafe, in a train, at home. You don’t know what a text book is. You buy your learning in chunks, as and when you need it and when it’s identified by your learning behaviour as being relevant to your learning needs.

So if you’re a publisher, consider that perhaps most of what you’re doing right now will be as useful as a bike to a fish in ten years’ time. The future drivers of English Language Teaching may be Google, or 2K Games, or Facebook, if they perceive the value opportunity in ELT. In this brave new world, the winners will be those who have the foresight to research, identify and then encompass disruptive technologies creatively, not those who continue to do stuff in the way they have always done stuff. Or – even worse – think they are doing new stuff when in fact they are just doing old stuff on new platforms.

Will we all learn to love it? Well, that’s another issue. Steve Jobs seldom listened to music on his iPod – he preferred vinyl. I’m off to have a coffee, and stick “Rattle and Hum” on the record deck.

Byron

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