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The next big bastard

If you want to be on the right side of the future, keep your eyes peeled–for the renegade, for the mongrel, and for poor trash. 4/20, Future Shoes hed: by Michael Finley

I have an idea. It is that all major advances, in technology, or anywhere, arrive as illegitimate pretenders, and go on to overthrow their rightful betters. I call it The Bastard Theory of Change. I’m using bastard in the Shakespearian sense here: the lowborn malcontent who must earn through deeds what his legitimate siblings achieve on brand recognition alone.

Exactly what is a bastard? It’s a new product, technology, process, or idea that succeeds in spite of its lineage, not because of it.

A perfect example is the inkjet printer. When they came out 10 years ago, they were quickly relegated to secondary status, behind the cleaner, more precise (and more expensive) laser printers. If an office elected to go with inkjet technology, it meant that office did not do prestigious work, or that it was a one-person office located in somebody’s bedroom.

But inkjets did one thing better and much cheaper than lasers–they printed color. Color printing swept the world, with $119 inkjet printers leading the way. You can still get better color printing with laser printers, but the quality is not so good that it is worth the price points. Meanwhile, once inkjet technology won its place on desktops, it could afford to get better. Today’s photo-quality and 1200 dpi color inkjet printers are awfully good.

You want examples of other bastards? How about Linux? The Unix-like OS arrived without any sort of pedigree and made significant inroads against its established competitor Microsoft. Or, going back further, how about Microsoft and Intel? Those rogue upstarts of another era stole the eggs of IBM.

How about the PC itself? It was respected by no one at its inception, yet it has buried all its blue-blooded betters–IBM, Cray, DEC, and Sperry.

Who can birth a brat? Evidently, not companies that take their dignity too seriously. Look at Xerox and AT&T, the noblest of the noble, conducting all that great research at XeroxPARC and Bell Labs. Yet these sterling companies were unable to own up to their own creations, so they were driven out, like Ishmael.

And inkjets and PCs are the least of it. Reengineering and downsizing were rough, brutal ideas that no one inside organizations liked, but they lowered costs, and customers liked that. Voicemail queues, autoresponders, and fee-based technical support were despicable innovations–but we went along with them, didn’t we.

Mutual funds, junk bonds, and online investing were the Rodney Dangerfields of finance when they first appeared. The compact car. Wal-Mart. Who’d of thunk that a 15-cent hamburger-stand out in the desert would someday be restaurant to the world?

Think of culture–how things that look at first like serious devolutions go on to evolve in their own right. How the minuet gave way to the waltz, to swing, to rock and roll, to hip hop. It’s always horrible at first, yet it always works out somehow. Some of the best religions are born in a barn.

If there is a land of the free and home of the bastards, it has to be America. Our country started as the uppity bastard of Great Britain, and then it went on to inculcate in its bylaws a blueprint for bastardom. Here you get the same rights as everyone else, regardless of your pedigree. Indeed, a pedigree will be your comeuppance. Here our bluebloods pretend to like pork rinds.

The bastard theory is good news for those of us not born with a silver spoon in our mouth. And it is our best hope against the rise of the megaliths like AOL-Time Warner and Microsoft.

What does this theory mean to you? Depends. If you prize respectability above being right, by all means, continue to think of the future as a linear development from the past.

But if you want to be on the right side of the future, keep your eyes peeled–for the renegade, for the mongrel, for poor trash.

The next big bastard could make you rich.

Columnist Michael Finley is America’s Best Loved Futurist(TM).

Michael Finley also writes the monthly Diversionscolumn for ComputerUser magazine.

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