How they sell you what you don't understand

For the technophile in your life, these items are must-haves.
By Jeffrey L. Cruikshank
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 8:43 PM

The common wisdom today tells us that when it comes to innovation, we're heading off a cliff edge. Lots of reasons are put forward: Our educational system has failed. We're not graduating enough scientists and engineers. We're not registering enough patents (especially compared with our foreign competitors). We're reaching the natural limits on some kinds of innovation, and so on.

Consider Moore's Law - the famous principle of computing that states that the density of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years, thereby making all kinds of technological advances possible. "It can't continue forever," Intel's founder said back in April. In 10 to 20 years, Moore warned, we'll reach a fundamental limit.

The technological jig is up, in other words. From now on, things will stop getting smaller, faster, smarter, cooler and cheaper. From now on, we have to live clunkier lives.

But others are looking into a very different future. Increasing numbers of venture capitalists and other Smart Money people are predicting that - contrary to all the doom-and-gloom reports - a wave of innovation is just ahead that will dwarf all previous such waves. Breakthroughs in bioengineering and related fields, for example, will more than make up for a petering out of Moore's Law.

Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts that there will be a thousand times more innovation in the 21st century than there was in the 20th. Scalable quantum computers, cloud computing, synthetic life forms, breakthroughs in cleantech, nanotech, robotics, exotic new materials and more: Such advances will lead to more new products and services than ever before, many of them completely unfamiliar to consumers.

That raises an interesting question: How do you create a market for stuff that people don't understand?

Let's imagine an example that's not too far removed from reality.

Say you're watching late-night TV tonight, and an ad comes on offering you your own personal DNA map. The excited voice-over would go something like this: "Nobel Prize winner and DNA-decoder genius James Watson got his personal DNA map in 2007 - the first ever! The cost: a million dollars. Your price? Only $19.95, plus shipping and handling!"

So: Do you turn over your credit card number?

Before you do that, let me introduce Albert Lasker, a man who could sell a revolution like no one before him - or perhaps since.

Although Lasker has been largely forgotten by all but advertising buffs and medical researchers hoping to win the prestigious Lasker Prize, he and his colleagues at the Lord & Thomas agency were responsible in the first three decades of the 20th century for introducing an astonishing array of products that we take for granted today - from orange juice to toothpaste, all-weather tires to sanitary napkins and disposable handkerchiefs.

I thought of Lasker in recent weeks as I've fumbled with my new iPad - the latest gee-whiz device from Steve Jobs and the gang at Apple. The iPad was introduced in January to great fanfare. By July, something like 3.3 million had been sold, and in the following quarter, an additional 4.2 million. It may be only the beginning of a technological tsunami: One analyst predicts that 28 million iPads will be sold in 2011 and that iPad app sales alone will constitute a $1 billion business by 2012.

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