My wife (Karuna) and I often differing views on a number of things, as is common. And almost always, she’s right. But there are some areas where we agree to disagree.
Karuna doesn’t drive a manual car. She’s very comfortable in an automatic. I love driving – either manual or automatic. Obviously, the automatic car is doing a whole lot of thinking for you. And probably doing a few things better. By matching the gear to the speed more effectively, it’s likely to be more fuel efficient especially in stop-start city driving. But like most people who drive a manual car, I hunker for the control of the stick shift and the level influence I have on the drive. It feels like I’m closer to the engine. The automatic car provides a level of abstraction and let’s anybody drive, without mastering the intricacies of gear shifts and clutch control. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the message keeps flashing: the automatic is all right, but a manual car is a real drive.
We have the opposite stances on Digital Cameras. As somebody who has formally learnt photography and spent time in dark-rooms developing prints, she loves the control, and human input into the process. I enjoy the fact that I can get great photographs by just framing the picture. Karuna gave me tips on framing but the camera does the rest – i.e. manage exposure, focus, lighting, and even the intensity and balance of colours. Of course, all of this comes bundled with a phone. No more wandering around with an SLR camera slung around your neck. I love it. For her its anathema.
The pattern here is simple, when we invest time and effort in building a skill, or a technique, we are invested in the process, not just the output. And what almost every technological advancement tends to do, is that it democratises is previously closely held skill, putting the same level of competence into the hands of amateurs and novices. For the experts this is distasteful or downright annoying, but more importantly, it’s often professionally disruptive. The former, because it devalues that expert process which we are attached to, and the latter, because it challenges their expertise and renders them less valuable.
“The Knowledge” is the course that all London Black Cab drivers go through. For decades, the London Cab has been famous – one of the icons of the city. Apart from the car itself, which is custom designed and manufactured for the purpose, the drivers are famed for their familiarity with the city and routes. The Knowledge comprises some 320 routes through London, and covers 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. A black cab driver is expected to know them all. Qualifying takes 2-4 years on average. During the exam, they can be given any start point and end point in those hundreds of routes and they are expected to know the most efficient way of getting from start to finish. The number of qualified drivers is controlled. Typically, it takes an investment of 30,000 to become a cab driver, in addition to the 25 hours a week time invested over 3 years. Typically, the London Cab is twice the price or more for journeys that take 30 minutes or more, compared to the privately run ‘mini-cabs’ that also operate in an organised manner in London.
Since the dawn of sat-navs any driver can find locations, routes, and optimise journeys with an investment of under a hundred pounds. Nowadays the smartphone does just as well. Today every user who gets into a taxi is more likely than not to have a device with him or her that can provide exactly the same level of knowledge about routes, directions and traffic conditions that the black cab driver has accumulated over 3 years. Short of injecting this knowledge into the brain, a la Matrix, the first time tourist in London is now as well equipped to navigate London as the black cab driver.
Of course, you still need to get a taxi, and the black cabs are ubiquitous in London so you’re likely to hail one anyway. Or you would, till the arrival of the brigade of taxi apps. And the poster child of taxi applications – Uber. Now you just send up a digital flare while you’re working your way through dessert and you can be sure that by the time you’re out on the street, the taxi is likely to be there. Not a London Cab but a less expensive car with a similar assurance of safety and comfort.
Not that London Cabs are luddites. The Hailo and Gettaxi pps do exactly this for black cabs. The whole experience of calling a taxi has changed forever. You just broadcast a request and one of the many taxis which is the closest to your location responds. It’s the same for any category of cabs. Even the cab companies which take bookings do so through apps. It’s just that the price premium charged by London cabs is no longer sustainable.
There are plenty of other services run by local cab companies which come with Apps. I use a company called Swift which has a reliable app and also one of the drivers, let’s call him Bob, asks me about it whenever he picks me up. The last time around we had a discussion about some of the features that the app should add. He is very engaged with the idea of the app making this experience better.
As I write this, all over the world, incumbent taxi services are warring with new services such as Uber and Lyft. Which are by the way, just marketplaces, and not car services, themselves. And clearly much of the legislation does not cover this model. So the incumbent services are lobbying the government for protection. In Germany, a cab license costs over $ 250,000. Understandably, drivers having paid that sum are not happy to see their returns diminished via competition from new and technologically enabled entrants. Many cities including Munich, Dusseldorf, Berlin and Hamburg are considering declaring Uber illegal. Their argument is primarily that as taxi services, Uber enabled cabs should pay the same license fee.
In Seoul, the government’s concerns are based around the safety of the vehicles, background checks on drivers, and the impact on the local taxi trade. The last may be the most honest reason, in most parts of the world. Even though in Seoul, Uber is more expensive than the regular taxis.
Even at home, in the US, Uber has faced the law – in Virginia for example, where Uber has been asked to ‘cease and desist’ by the government, till it obtains the ‘proper authority’.
Brussels has already banned Uber. Barcelona, Paris and other major European cities have discussed banning it. There have been strikes in London and Milan. All of these are typically examples of old markets and legislation trying to keep up with new business models. Even Neely Kroes has criticised the bans.
The pattern that repeats itself is that markets switch quickly, but legislation takes time. Most taxi apps now allow sharing, payments, and a host of other features which significantly improve the experience for the user.
Defending the old model even in the face of new technology creates a precipice from which the fall can be sudden and dramatic – witness the music industry, which reaped the benefits of digital technology for many years but failed to adapt to the internet’s new models. People find ingenious methods for using the new technology to the benefit of suppliers and customers, even as regulators and enforcers fume.
So where does that leave the Black Cab driver who has just spent years mastering “The Knowledge” to qualify to drive a black cab in London? Is this the end of the road for him? Is this one more example of technology rendering a valuable skill useless?
Your guess is as good as mine, but for a glimpse of what could happen, let me take you back a hundred and fifty years or so. It was the time of the invention and spread of photography. I’ve written about this in more detail here but the short version is this: photography democratised portraiture. And rendered hundreds of artists jobless. Any amateur armed with a camera could take a photo more accurate and lifelike than the best of painters. So what did these artists do? Many presumably changed professions, some undoubtedly fell on hard times. But out of this some decided that their role was not to represent reality but to interpret it. It is no surprise therefore that the birth of impressionism coincided with the spread of photography.
So when democratisation hits your area of expertise, as it will, sooner or later, will you find yourself with a choice of extinction or adaptation. Will you be like the impressionists and evolve? Or will you fall on your sword (or paintbrush)? Will you look for help to regulators? Or will you create new markets? After all, even decision making and ‘management’ expertise, is being democratised through analytics and knowledge systems.
Either way, the challenge for regulators as always, is to move at the pace of technology and markets. The challenge for you is to evolve to find or create a market as technology democratises your specialist skill. Resisting the change, though, is not really an option. You might as well try to resist ageing.