the wrong metaphor

“The end of television and the death of the Cable TV bundle.”

Such is the title of this article in the Atlantic published a few days ago. Every time I see one of these articles pop up, I roll my eyes and wonder when we’re going to stop treating markets, technologies, products and services as if they were living things, and therefore as if they could die and disappear from one moment to the next.

Because, the thing is, they don’t.

AOL still has something like three million dial-up subscribers. Three million people paying hundreds of dollars a year! Vinyl is still around. So is radio. Windows, which is quickly becoming less relevant, sells three hundred million copies a year or more. Books have been around for hundreds of years. Even print newspapers, under relentless pressure from digital media, also sell hundreds of millions of copies every day. And on, and on, and on.

Technologies that have reached mass adoption can’t be “killed” by other technologies that may replace them. Very large markets have a momentum of their own, and even as the generation of people that grew up with them passes away, there is usually some level of replacement as some people in the new generation carry it forward. Even products, which are specific instances of a technology or specific solutions to a certain market need, take a long time to die off, and can really only be “killed” by whoever is making them. Even then, many long-time users will hang on to them for as long as they can.

I think we have trouble seeing this accurately because of the multi-generational timespans involved. Not unlike the trouble we have in reacting to long-term, multi-generational challenges like global warming.

A more accurate way of describing this process would be to say that markets, technologies, and products_ fade away_, rather than “reach their end” or “die”. Some fade away very slowly, others a bit faster. If the technology allows it, there can be tipping points were a transition to another dominant technology happens fairly quickly, perhaps in a few years. One example of this would be Facebook vs. MySpace, where the switching costs involved are so low-cost (from the perspective of the user) and so strong, as far as self-reinforcing feedback loops go, that they can happen in a few years. Even so, MySpace is still around, and the situation isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like, with Facebook “killing” MySpace, because if anyone was primarily responsible for MySpace’s fast decline, it was MySpace itself.

This is important because how we talk about something matter as much as what we think of it. What we have to avoid is the wrong metaphor becoming the basis for an inaccurate mental model.

Ok, I get it. A headline that says “TV will fade away faster” is less catchy, and sounds stranger, than “TV is dead.” Mass media doesn’t do nuance and subtlety well. But if we can’t expect it to be gone from the headlines, we should keep in mind that this isn’t how the world really works.