May 26, 2024

This article is part the Foundation Essay series. It is a longer pieces that provide a more comprehensive review of key issues that impact society.

Apple’s new product launches are greeted with a roar of excitement normally restricted to royal weddings as well as vaccinations against the most feared illnesses. The most recent release of the iPhone6 was a dazzling new technology called ApplePay If broadly adopted allows Apple’s highly discerning customers to pay electronically using their smartphones in situations in which they could have used cash or credit cards.

If everything goes as planned, Americans will soon be capable of doing something Kenyans have been doing every day for the past ten years. M-PESA is the mobile payment system provided by Safaricom is used in more than two-thirds of adults Kenyans and is the foundation for a myriad of digital payment startups in Africa and across the world.

One reason why Kenya is 10 years ahead of the US in mobile money is straightforward: Kenya needed phone-based payment systems earlier in comparison to that of the US did. Credit card use was (and remains) very low in Kenya. A majority of Kenyans do not possess bank accounts rendering the use of paper checks virtually useless for anything but the most important transactions. M-PESA is a popular alternative to the standard for transfer of funds from city to city. Before you could send money through SMS it was commonplace to hand over a pile of cash to the driver who was heading to that city and request him to collect your cash to you.

In the US however, on the other side we have the system of checks and credit cards with a system that, even in the face of fraud inefficiencies, and other shortcomings it is efficient enough to allow billions of dollars of consumer spending. The system, though imperfect, is adequate. Good enough is the issue.

“Good enough” gets out of the way of embracing innovation

When a nation faces problems where there are no good solutions, it often responds with a wave of innovation and infrastructure-building.

With the massive influx of urban and rural residents, China has invested in an amazing system of high-speed rail, which allows millions of workers who are migrant to return home for new Years holiday. The unique combination of air and road travel has been successful enough even with an aging infrastructure and constant difficulties of traveling by air – it’s unlikely that high-speed rail will be a success in China despite obvious environmental advantages.

If the systems are adequate they are maintained often well, but sometimes badly. Rarely do we abandon a system that is good enough and invent to fill the gap that we’ve created. Instead, the best systems can hinder innovation in order to limit the use of creativity in the area.

I’ve been contemplating the process that are “good enough” in the web and the field that I’ve worked for over two decades. In the years following the emergence of the commercial web I was a part of the development of a terrible technology that is still in use because it’s enough to last that is the pop up advertisement.

My boss at a young internet company asked me to find a source of ways to generate revenue for our most well-known product, hosted websites. Because users could place any content they wanted on the websites, marketers were hesitant to put ads on these pages. My solution was to create a new browser window after our servers had delivered an user-friendly page, and then we’d offer advertisements on the new window. The ads performed well enough for us to be able to sell our company into a public traded firm. They also performed well enough to ensure that every scam online advertiser was able to add the unpopular instrument to its inventory.

The admittance of this cyber-crime has resulted in threatening emails as well as the absurd experience of being the subject of late-night television monologues. But I’ve written about the experience because I think the entire advertising-supported nature of the web is an example of a situation where good enough isn’t good enough.

A case in point: the web advertising

There’s a subset of online advertising that performs well. Search engines are able offer ads geared to your preferences since we provide search engines with what we’re searching for. You can search on “roofer North Adams MA” and the resultant ad from a local roofing business is likely to result in an enjoyable experience for both the advertiser and client. However, saturating the website of the local paper with roofing advertisements, or encroaching on the Facebook feeds of everyone that lives within western Massachusetts using this offer, is more poorly.

In the days following “banner ads” were introduced on the internet in the mid-1990s, users were able to click on as many as seven of 100 advertisements to find out more about a particular product. But we’ve been taught to avoid these advertisements. Nowadays, the click rate of one in 1000 are typical.

Customers and advertisers alike dislike web-based advertising, but yet it continues to be used, as it’s an effective method to earn income that it’s allowed sites such as Facebook to reach more than one billion users without having to charge the users for a subscription.

Instead of removing online ads companies such as Facebook are motivated to implement incremental improvements. In the hope of making us less resentful of ads than they already are, they gather as much data about our demographics, psychographics, and internet usage as they can and then deliver ads that are tailored to us. It doesn’t work.

Mark Zuckerberg doubling down. Brian Solis, CC BY-SA

Advertisements for Facebook are performing just as badly as other banner ads. to date advertisers are prepared to invest only a tenth of as much to connect with a person online than they do to do so via ad placement in an untargeted and unpersonalised paper newspaper.

It’s the nature of “good enough” systems that we continue to rely on them instead of abandoning them and re-starting.

As long as Facebook is able to pay for its expenses with a decent revenue model and promises investors that they’ll be doing better work in the near future and continue to make money from advertising and keep their users under increasing surveillance.

The social implications of teaching an entire generation to ensure that their online activities are recorded, logged into databases and then compiled into the digital “permanent record” is beyond the scope of a company’s calculation, much since global warming has mostly been left out of the calculations of car manufacturers and airlines.

The need to challenge assumptions

Resolving the problems of a “good enough” system is challenging, but it’s an opportunity to have a dramatic social impact, and often huge profits.

If Tesla’s electric car is, for instance, an affordable and common mode of transportation, Tesla’s shareholders will receive huge gains on their investment. Likewise, the emissions of vehicles will drastically decrease.

Is it becoming mainstream? cytech, CC BY-SA

In challenging two fundamental assumptions of the automotive industry – that electric cars were only for environmentally conscious people and not for those who love high-performance vehicles and that drivers will require an infrastructure of fueling stations prior to buying electric vehicles The company Tesla might alter how transportation in America is conducted in ways that the incremental improvement in fuel efficiency haven’t.

However, America’s vast highway as well as fueling and auto dealership systems are a classic, good enough system that is likely to be more durable than we imagine. Huge sums of money rely on the existing systems and the people who own these systems are in a position of strong incentive to safeguard them from being affected by.

We are frequently encouraged to imagine radical change using technology. In his latest novel, Zero to One the investor Peter Thiel urges his readers to create completely new systems, rather than expanding and expanding existing ones.

These systems are built on technological advancements. To move “from zero to one” in the way Thiel calls the process, means to present new abilities to our world via technological advancement. The issue lies in the fact that technology systems which appear revolutionary at a particular point in time may become “good enough” systems we must overcome as they age and become calcified.

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