Friday 22 October 2010

Technological evolution: fine wines and fast cars

"Technological evolution: fine wines and fast cars" was published in Luxury Briefing in October 2010.


Technological evolution: fine wines and fast cars
by Alexander Gallé

The FT Innovative Design and Technology conference is taking place later this week. I'm itching to hear the speakers and am beginning to feel the adrenaline boost that - in the manner of Pavlov's dogs - technologists feel at the expectation of new "brainfood".

There was a time, not so long ago, when "technologist" was a job title. A technologist was a person who proposed and evaluated IT solutions to a commercial problem. The term quite accurately reflected the can-do-it-ism of the dotcom era: "being digital" was above all else a way of seeing industrial processes - including labour and machinery - as information processes, as bits rather than atoms.

But being a technologist today is really much more than this. After all, showing that bright and beautiful things are possible, and showing the way to achieve them, is more than a job title. It's an attitude, more closely related to a political outlook than a profession. 20th-century intellectuals may have believed in statism, whether socialist or conservative, but 21st-century thinkers seeking human progress, liberty and emancipation cannot, in my view, be anything but technologists.

A technologist attitude is what makes possible the creation of a new fine wine to beat all fine wines, by applying new technology to the process of picking the grapes, of transporting the grapes, of macerating the grapes, etc. This is what has been achieved with Chêne Bleu, the fabulous wines produced at the Domaine de la Verrière near Mont Ventoux, whose white wine (Aliot) won a gold medal at the IWC, and whose reds (Abélard and Héloïse) each won a silver.

These wines are, of course, luxury products. The combination of pioneering spirit, pure love of the subject, and dedication to technology elevates the quality standard to new heights, as well as the price tag: starting at £60 a bottle, this wine is clearly "not for everyone".

Taking the "not for everyone" approach to extremes, the new McLaren 12C was launched last week. The price tag is what it is, of course. But, more than anything, what this car epitomises to me is technological evolution.

For example, a feature once seen only on the McLaren F1, such as the ultra-safe carbon fiber "tub" seat or monocell (which allows the F1 driver to just walk out of a burning car without so much as a scratch on him) used to cost over £100,000 to make. On the new McLaren, it costs only £6,000! Give it another decade and it'll probably come as a standard in every production car around the globe.

Technologists such as Frank Stephenson, the new McLaren's chief designer, are the brains among us who take the "not" out of "not for everyone". Left to their own, away from the finger-wagging politicians, they ensure that new technologies become more available at lower cost to a wider segment of the producing sector, leading eventually to an overall improvement in the quality of everyday products. Moore's Law - twice the speed at half the price - is a rule which has applied to new chip technology for the past 40 years, as anyone familiar with the "Gordon Gekko on the beach with a brick-sized cellphone" scene from Wall Street will be aware of.

What was, only a few years ago, available exclusively to the richest and biggest companies, is now available to the smallest of market entrants, thus boosting competition in new market sectors and increasing accessibility for everyone. Luxury designers, take note...

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