Research Superstar Jan Chipchase Lays Out 4 Deep Trends Affecting Tech Today

There are countless people who make a living as global trend hunters. Jan Chipchase puts them all to shame. Formerly Nokia’s chief researcher and now Frog’s Executive Director of Global Insights, he is one of the world’s most well-traveled people. He does it all in the name of understanding technology and design more deeply. A typical month might take him from Tokyo to Nigeria to India, and at every point along the way he gathers hundreds of tiny observations about people, objects, products, services, systems, and interactions.

At this year’s PopTech conference in Camden, ME, Co.Design sat down with Chipchase. We talked about the blurry line between creepy and acceptable, the ability of technology to amplify and disrupt, the implications of embedded data, and opting in versus switching off.

The Rate of Rollout

Technological progress is happening faster and faster. Chipchase sees that trend, but with an added scope: Even as tech rollouts of new products are complicating our own holiday shopping lists, they are also reaching what used to be the farthest markets with remarkable speed. A lower-middle-class, 21-year-old woman in Nigeria now has a BlackBerry as her first phone. What used to be strictly the domain of the "Wall Street Warrior," is now an accessible accessory.

Even Chipchase is awed by the speed of the rollouts: "This thing, this object, keeps on ratcheting up. I keep on seeing it, it shouldn’t surprise me really, but in parts of Africa they’re talking about a 4G rollout next year. The speed at which that just becomes part of the landscape still manages to surprise me. It’s progress. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s progress. It just is."

[Tokyo, Japan: Vending machines with surveillance cameras in Tokyo record feedback about our consumption patterns and behaviors. With near- and real-time feedback, what kind of data is being collected about us?]

Network Access: A Cheap, Ubiquitous Commodity

What will it mean when our smartphones are as easy to borrow and throw away as a Bic pen? "You might think that that’s a stupid assumption, or that [mobile phones are] so highly personalized that it’s not going to happen," says Chipchase. "But for a segment of the market, a big segment, that is definitely going to happen. Its not just, 'Will it be tolerated.' It will be pushed, because it will make people money." Chipchase points out that all of the contracts and red tape place a huge barrier to accessing the network. So it’s only a matter of time that a new business model catering to strangers arises—much as it has with disposable mobile phones. But perhaps our identity can still be carried over from device to device. What will that future look like?

[Chipchase’s influential TED talk from 2007, "Our Cellphones, Ourselves."]

Who Can Afford to Switch Off?

Remember when you used to have to really make an effort to connect to the Internet? Remember the sound of the modem connecting? The time it took for a simple image to load, top to bottom, seemingly one pixel at a time? The question was who could afford to switch on, who could afford to plug in. In an incredibly short amount of time, that question has made an about-face. Now the question has become who can afford to switch off.

We have all felt the massive pressure that comes with no connectivity, the search for full-bar coverage, any sliver of Wi-Fi, and the inability to check in with our email, our bosses, our text messages, in real time. And this is happening all over the world, under pressures that most of us cannot even imagine.

"We did a study in China, and in China, it’s really common, if you work in a factory, for a factory boss to take your ID card, and keep it. If you want to leave the factory you have to ask permission," says Chipchase. "What happens when, in principle, the ID is embedded, with the assumption that of course it’s with you 24/7, in the same way that underwear is with you 24/7, or an earring is with you 24/7? And I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but it is going to happen. What does it mean for a factory worker whose boss says, 'You need to come in and work on Sunday, and I know you can hear this message?' I think it’s a wonderful example, if you’re asking where it goes, it’s technology amplifying existing behaviors and assumptions. Technology disrupts, but it also amplifies."

[Ahmedabad, India: Your money is (mostly) safe. There are always caveats to our privacy, our access, and our information.]

There’s a Fine Line Between Socially Acceptable and Creepy

So much more of what designers are designing and producers are producing, and what we consumers are consuming, is inherently connected. Virtually everything has an element of social connectivity to it, and we willingly put more and more of ourselves out into the ether—from the obvious and innocuous pictures of our cats on Facebook, to the less intuitive list of our credit card purchases on Blippy. What we are opting in and out of is no longer simply about trying the newest product on the market; it is about deciding whether or not to be part of society.

"That line between socially acceptable, and creepy is constantly changing," says Chipchase. "Do you remember Gmail contextual ads? The first time they came out? How long did that furor last for? Five days?"

We are embedding parts of our lives that used to be strictly private into the irretrievably public arena, constantly. As a result, more of our information is already embedded and retrievable in near or real time. "So if we were in South Korea, and we were having coffee, I would be self-documenting, and then we would post online, and you would be doing the same thing. Well, why is it that, here, in Maine, we don’t do that? Never assume that something you find utterly creepy today will not be the norm tomorrow."

[Top image: Ibadan, Nigeria: Technology that used to be strictly the purview of a Wall Street mogul is now the norm in some of world’s poorest communities. We are all ratcheting up.]

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  • Jo

    Kind of par for the course for Chipchase unfortunately. I once heard him say that he likes his observations to read as commonsensical or self-obvious but they're really too much so for my taste. To me, "insight" implies more than just parroting trends broadly known to the whole industry. 

  • Guest

    I would agree that there isn't anything new here. Also, to those who said that Chipchase should sweep Nokia "under the rug," has it occurred to anyone that this "Research Superstar" might be the reason Nokia missed the smartphone boat in the first place?

  • Jneitz

    Let me get this straight..  We're being told now that if we choose not to buy a new iphone and post thousands of meaningless updates about oursleves, that barely ever  even get noticed, we're opting out of society?? This is the most rediculous statement I've seen lately.
    Where did this dependence of tech devices come from, why is being pushed on us so regularly, and, most importantly, why is everyone accepting this?Honestly aren't there enough real life people and events around throughout the day to have interaction with?
    The truth is your iphone,etc. doesn't make your life easier, it's  slowly destroying one of the best parts of being a human, real life interaction.

  • Guest

    Was drawn to this article by "Superstar Researcher" Label - And then completely disappointed by the simplistic observations being passed of as Insights -  Insights is not about gawking at alien cultures and trends, and making "Touristy Observations" but about trying to dig deep to understand why it is happening so and attempt to point out where it is headed to. Sadly lacking in all the instances quoted above. 

    Not expected from an Co.Design article which almost, always is painstakingly researched and never fails to amaze.

  • gbacoder

     We are honestly well aware he has been to Africa and all over the world. I think you are saying that b/c Nokia is no big in Africa (are they?) they will be so in 30 years time. When Africa may be a much bigger market. Again from my comment made at the same time as you were writing yours, so hard to predict, and interpolate yo the future like that. Nokia was big here, and is not now. Myspace was big and is not now. For all we know they may dream of owning an Apple. I hope he asked them that, as it could be important, but again will not matter so much.

    The best most intelligent observation you can make, is that people are hard to predict. Moore's law is easier because that involved machines / technology, not so much people.  

    Trying to predict people way into the future is as hard as predicting the weather way into the future. Stick to the next few months and you will do much better in my view. 

  • gbacoder

    Hate to be impolite, but this is not a superstar vision to me. It's just taking basic observations about different places and interpolating them to the future, assuming changes will continue to happen. Ok, quite low class people in Africa are able to afford mobiles. Very basic observation, did not need to go to Africa. People so far have initially objected to privacy changes, then get used to them (this we seriously know from face book). But is it right to say that this trend will keep on going and going, like Moore's law? Maybe, maybe not. But it does not take a superstar to make this observation. In reality it's hard to predict. Facebook will just keep on doing it, until people stop coming round. Why try and predict this, it's very hard and won't matter much? There's the big picture! Psychologists have many competing theories, it's no exact science, more of an art. 

    The note on prices of phones going down to pen prices is followed up by the comment this will lead to mega profits. If all phones cost this much, where will be the profits I ask? Software maybe? But what if most apps end up done? The hi tech industry could become nothing more than a pen company. It's hard to predict whether or when, but who cares? This kind of wishy washy vision is nice to ponder over sometimes, but is hard to get right, and does not matter even if you did get it right! 

    I am honestly surprised people like this get paid to tour the world, take 10,000 pictures of a location, ponder a lot, and come up with visions like this. I could do much better and I know it! I have visions and will keep them to myself and try to launch companies, that's what real visionaries do.

    It reminds me of modern artists the way this guy works,  a lot of hype in my opinion. 

    Signed, from a humble garage startup perspective.

  • JackHumphrey

    Could it possibly be that commentators who yawn at this aren't the target of  the delivery?  It's nothing to say "that's nothing new."  It's something to actually understand what he's saying - really understand it.  He's a time traveler.  He goes back in time when he visits the continent of Africa.  He's been all over the world where our first world problems would be a luxury to everyone else.  Nokia, for instance, is massively important in the rest of the world.  Not knowing or recognizing that fact, as if the only countries that exist are the first world, should be kind of embarrassing.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Kind of differences that make no difference.  There's virtually no way to plan for or against these trends, if they truly are trends and not a particular way of seeing the world.  I doubt that throwaway will work in times of austerity and the pressure to block privacy-invasive and "creepy" applications seems building to a fever pitch.  I'm not speaking as a trend analyst, which I am, but rather as a reader of newspapers.  It'd be cool to be in Nigeria if you're not there during a civil disturbance.  How much are the oil companies taking out of that nation, btw, and how much is left with corrupt regimes?  That would tend to flavor any normative conclusions I drew, because revolutions always trump trends.

  • Chris

    "When opting out of new tech, you're now deciding not to be part of society."
    For me, the article doesn't say much that is new, but it does reinforce the notion that technology always equals progress, and that it's an inevitable, and unstoppable. Maybe opting out means just opting out of that technology, rather than the extreme of not being part of society. I feel Jan is so neck deep in this world, he doesn't recognize we don't have to embrace everything sold or promoted. There is a bit of critical thinking thrown into this article (Factory managers big bothering future workers) but overall the gist is we are powerless to stop it. I would like to see more questioning, more of an examination of the value, or lack thereof, in new technologies.

  • David Fitzgerald

    I'm with Rick (below), nothing new here, basically stating the obvious.

    And if I may add a snide comment.... if I were Jan Chipchase, I would not put anything to do with Nokia on my credentials. Seeing as to how Nokia has completely missed the boat on smartphones and is on a path to become irrelevant in the mobile phone business (partnering with Microsoft?), maybe he should sweep that part of his life under the rug....

  • Jarhi S.

    It's been corrected since (quite a few easy mistakes)! Good article (always was) he's an interesting guy.

  • Guest

    Not sure what Jarhi is objecting to. Comes off like a personal vendetta.

    I found the article interesting, and the style certainly seems in line with the usual standards of Co.Design. And by the way, it would be shocking if their editors hadn't read through it.

  • Jarhi S.

    I think that article needs a read-through by an editor. Great content, poorly written up.