The genius behind creating things too impractical to buy
How do companies keep getting you to buy the "latest and greatest" iteration of the product you already own? By testing the boundaries.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is best known for his work on time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia, and neurolaw.
Beyond his 100+ academic publications, he has published many popular books. His bestselling book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the neuroscience "under the hood" of the conscious mind: all the aspects of neural function to which we have no awareness or access. His work of fiction, SUM, is an international bestseller published in 28 languages and turned into two operas. Why the Net Matters examines what the advent of the internet means on the timescale of civilizations. The award-winning Wednesday is Indigo Blue explores the neurological condition of synesthesia, in which the senses are blended.
Eagleman is a TED speaker, a Guggenheim Fellow, a winner of the McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication, a Next Generation Texas Fellow, Vice-Chair on the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Neuroscience & Behaviour, a research fellow in the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Mind Science Foundation, and a board member of The Long Now Foundation. He has served as an academic editor for several scientific journals. He was named Science Educator of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, and was featured as one of the Brightest Idea Guys by Italy's Style magazine. He is founder of the company BrainCheck and the cofounder of the company NeoSensory. He was the scientific advisor for the television drama Perception, and has been profiled on the Colbert Report, NOVA Science Now, the New Yorker, CNN's Next List, and many other venues. He appears regularly on radio and television to discuss literature and science.
David Eagleman: The future is very hard to see—where the world is going. And most ideas die. And even really good ideas don’t last.
So just as an example, if you look at the Blackberry phone market share you’ll see that they were doing really well for a while and then they just tanked out. Why? Because they had a good idea, which was the physical keyboard on the phone, but that didn’t last. They held onto a good idea a little bit too long.
And this is something that creative companies need to be aware of all the time, is this constant updating. In other words they’ve got some great thing that’s working but it’s not going to last and they need to keep updated.
And this is why companies put out their “new and improved” models all the time.
We’re now on the iPhone 10 and it’s going to keep going because you can’t put out something great and then say, “all right, I think we’re done.” So the challenge for companies is that it’s hard to know what’s going to stick. And this is because if you do something that’s too close to what you’ve done before, your audience will be bored. If you do something that’s too wacky, then no one’s going to follow you there.
And so companies need to figure out how to feel out the border of the possible. And this is something that good companies work on all the time. The solution is to proliferate options. The solution is to put out lots of options, and those options should actually be at different distances from community standards.
Just as an example, fashion designers do this all the time. They have their next model of clothing and it’s great, it’s pretty similar to what came before. And they do wackier and wackier stuff all the way out to haute couture, where it’s not actually intended that anyone is going to wear this wacky outfit but it’s a way of “feeling out” the border of the possible. In the same way car designers do this.
So Mercedes Benz is constantly upgrading and updating its sedans. But they also like all car companies make these concept cars that are completely wacky.
So Mercedes recently put out this thing called the “biome concept car” which is the idea of a car that is grown from seeds and the fuel runs through the car body, and the tires and everything is powered by the electric, by the solar panel sunroof at the top, and the whole thing is biodegradable. Now Mercedes has no plans to actually build the biome concept car. It only lives on the computer.
But this is a way of taking a throw into the far distance to figure out what’s on the distant horizon, to figure out if you can move in that direction or not.
And all good companies have ways of doing that. Fisher Price is constantly updating its strollers and toys or whatever. But it has also this future of parenting line where they think about the impact of technology on childrearing of the future with very wacky things and projected images all around for your child and so on.
So even a company like Lowes—they sell tools and so on. That’s the standard stuff. But they have this essentially a “holodeck” where you step in and you get to design your room and so on. You put on these VR glasses and you get to see everything before you buy it. They call this the “marriage saver.” And this is what companies, good companies try to do is cover that spectrum, so they can figure out exactly what’s going to work to pull them into the future.
Do you really need another iPhone? Not really, but there's going to be another one anyway. That's because companies, as neuroscientist David Eagleman put it, "need to figure out how to feel out the border of the possible." It's a remarkable way to get you to buy more, and it works across the purchasing spectrum from cars to phones to houses. David's latest book: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.
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