November 30, 2016
Is This the Day the Data Died?
To understand recent failures in projections (notably in election polls), let's revisit four technologies that did not live up to the hype.
Who can forget Don McLean’s iconic “American Pie”? Released in 1971, it was a four-week No. 1 hit in the U.S. It is listed as the No. 5 song of the century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts. The original 16-page manuscript sold for $1.2 million last year.
For me, the most memorable line in the nearly 800-word, eight-and-a-half-minute song is: “The day the music died.” It marks Feb. 3, 1959, where there was a seismic shift in music. The senseless and untimely deaths of rock-and-roll legends Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) are interpreted in highly symbolic and blurry verbal pictures.
After the recent presidential election, the question before us is whether Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, will become known as “the day the data died.”
No matter your political or ideological viewpoint, no one predicted what happened at the polls. Even with mountains of data and 21st century technology, mainstream media and academia completely missed the mark — and not by a little. We now know that the data wasn’t just slightly off track; it was a couple of interstate exits away from reality.
See also: Some Things Are Too Important for Paper
To try to figure out where we in the insurance industry should go from here in terms of thinking about how to use data and of projecting trends, I revisited a number of new technologies that either did not live up to the hype or just never achieved the projected dominance. Here are some of my favorites and their potential insurtech applications:
Debuting in 1971, it had four-track sound instead of a stereo’s two. And everyone knows more is always better. Quadrophonic sound was portrayed as not just sitting in front of musicians but sitting in the middle of them. I actually bought a quad system with four speakers and some tapes. The problem was that there are about a billion ways to produce recordings, and no single format was ever agreed on.
Implications for Insurtech
Standards are vitally important for insurance data exchange and widespread blockchain deployment and success. But, as a McKinsey report noted, the insurance industry is not known for its cooperation, its creation of standards, its adoption or its enforcement of standards.
Steve Jobs said it would be bigger than the PC. Time magazine called it “reinventing the wheel.” Venture capitalist John Doerr (who backed Netscape and Amazon) said it would be bigger than the internet. Jeff Bezos spurred huge hype, saying the Segway “is one of the most famous and anticipated product introductions of all time.” With pre-orders from the National Park Service and the U.S. Postal Service and with more than $90 million in venture capital funds, the Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen, said it would be to the car what “the car was to the horse and buggy.” All original 6,000 Segways were rapidly recalled because of customer injuries when the battery was low. While it has bounced back a little bit, the Segway never lived up to its hype.
If you Google “insurtech,” you get more than half a billion hits. With more than 800 insurtech startups and almost 150 deals worth $3.5 billion of investment since 2015, insurtech is a force to be reckoned with. There is more than enough hype to go around. Remember that just because an analyst, consultant or media outlet writes about a company or technology does not mean it is destined to take over the world — or even survive.
Everyone reading these words probably just about blew a gasket when they saw microwave ovens on this list of technologies that have not lived up to their promise. With more than 100 million units shipped in the past 10 years, how could microwave ovens be declared a failure? Well, microwaves were originally advertised as the death knell of traditional ovens. It’s not that microwaves are a failure, per se, it is that they never lived up to the hype. More than three million traditional ovens are still being sold annually, with a full 33% increase in sales over the past five years. As microwave radiation (yes, radiation) is used to heat water inside of food, it cooks from the inside-out. While microwave ovens are great for popcorn and reheating, they still cannot brown or fry, nor are they terrific for baking. I once caused a minor event (a fire) at work when I reheated some chicken in the microwave. I had failed to notice that the paper wrapping from the grocery store where I bought the chicken was lined with foil. While the ensuing fireworks and smoke were entertaining, my coworkers were less than thrilled.
While I keep count of the number of times I’ve ridden Pirates of the Caribbean in Walt Disney World (42 as of this article), I have completely lost count of the number of times the death of the mainframe was pronounced with great fanfare and assurance. The tablet was supposed to replace the PC, but, like the microwave, it has become a complementary device. We all need to exercise patience and caution whenever the next “bright shiny object” is set forth.
No, this is not a spelling error or an April Fools’ prank. Not only did someone actually think it was a good idea to combine two wildly different technologies in a single device, someone else approved and financed it. I find it hard to understand what a cell phone and electric razor have in common other than they are both battery powered and operate next to your face. Having a similar name to Motorola’s Razr phone turned out to create colossal confusion; the bottom line is that consumers were not at all attracted to this “cutting edge” device.
Putting together different technologies may make some sense or add value on the surface, but it may also have unintended consequences. I once worked for an insurance company that built a 40-story headquarters. It aggressively employed all the latest safety designs and technologies. One Monday morning, I woke up to discover that I could not go to work because of a significant fire on the fourth floor. It was later discovered that an office machine caught fire and burned undetected for about eight hours, causing considerable damage and disruption to the company. How could a fire burn that long without being detected, you may ask? The problem was the same as the Razr Phone: two technologies that seemed to make sense but had results that were problematic (at best). Smoke detectors were imbedded into the ventilation system and, to conserve electricity, the ventilation system had been turned off over the weekend, disabling the smoke detectors’ sensors. With no smoke detectors, the fire was allowed to burn until an overnight computer operator happened to open the door to the 25th floor stairway. With smoke billowing out, the operator manually pulled the fire alarm. One other note: With its reliance on all the latest technology and fire resistant materials, the building did not have sprinklers, much to the chagrin of the insurance company, the architect and city officials who approved the plans. A state-of-the-art sprinkler system was retrofitted, costing much more than if it had been installed during the original construction.
See also: The End of Leadership as We Know It?
While no one should boast about the outcome of the recent elections, we all should question what is going on when it comes to the media and “the experts” who proudly boast they know the truth because they have the data.
In these cases, their feet were firmly planted in the air.