Posted by: Dr Churchill | November 18, 2014

Innovation is Terror

Innovation is terrifying.

Right now we’re going through changes that rip away the core logic of our economy. Robots stealing our jobs. Mobile Apps making us all temp-workers. Crawlers make our queries useful to advertisers. Finance bots make market changing transactions at a fraction of a second and outsmart the best finance corporations, and their armies of traders. Nanotech medicine travels to your heart and brain and alters the chemistry to your favour. And knowledge-bots, make all school marms, teachers, and sexy librarians, completely and utterly redundant…

Things are a-changing.

For decades, entrepreneurs and digital gurus of various schools and disciplines, have referred to this era, in a breathlessness bordering on proselytizing, as the age of innovation.

And in today’s pell-mell world of startups, app-makers, and technology companies, outcompeting each other while ushering an era of ever expanding arrays and choices of competing tech products and services — we call them simply “Too Much”. Too much because, the train wreck of hundreds of thousands of corporate bodies line up our reality. Corporations, old, new and in between are all dead and dying. Those that are not willing to adapt and change radically are all perishing fast. Fat carcasses of bloated companies are lining up the shores of the court dockets in all financial centres the world over. Many well-established as well as lucrative behemoths along with early stage companies are littering the landscape of the bankruptcy courts in America, Europe, and elsewhere, presenting us with a valuable lesson as well as with a vivid reminder of the unexpected truth of adaptation and constant Innovation: “Innovation is Terror”

Mark my words: Innovation is Terror. It is often easier or at least less terrifying to deal with the Ebola virus, or the chicken flu, or even with the Islamic State jihadists, than to deal with Innovation. Even with viruses and terrorists — you can deal with. But with Innovation — you can’t.

But why can’t we deal with Innovation?
You can’t deal with it because if you are a corporate leader, or an officer, or even a foot soldier, of companies, governments, or religion, or if you are a shareholder of a well established decent size corporation — you feel that Innovation is your enemy, because you can’t reason with it. You can’t plan in light of it’s unexpectedness. You can’t make logical step by step incremental improvements when the “Sword Of Damocles” hangs above your head. Because Innovation and it’s intended as well as it’s unintended consequences can literally throw you on the street or chop your proverbial head off. Innovation is scary because you simply can’t deal with it. Mainly because innovation is, by necessity, inextricably linked with human failure and death of the old while ushering the “new”.

Yet truth is bold: The path to any success is lined with disasters. Most of the products that do make it out of the lab fail spectacularly once they hit the market. Even successful products will ultimately fail when a better idea comes along. (One of Schuetz’s most remarkable finds is a portable eight-track player.) And those lucky innovations that are truly triumphant, the ones that transform markets and industries, create widespread failure among their competition.

An age of constant invention naturally begets one of constant failure. The life span of an innovation, in fact, has never been shorter. An African hand ax from 285,000 years ago, for instance, was essentially identical to those made some 250,000 years later. The Sumerians believed that the hoe was invented by a godlike figure named Enlil a few thousand years before Jesus, but a similar tool was being used a thousand years after his death. During the Middle Ages, amid major advances in agriculture, warfare and building technology, the failure loop closed to less than a century. During the Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about a lifetime. By the 20th century, it could be measured in decades. Today, it is best measured in years and, for some products, even less.

The closure of the failure loop has sent uncomfortable ripples through the economy. When a product or company is no longer valued in the marketplace, there are typically thousands of workers whose own market value diminishes, too. Our breakneck pace of innovation can be seen in stock-market volatility and other boardroom metrics, but it can also be measured in unemployment checks, in divorces and involuntary moves and in promising careers turned stagnant. Every derelict product that makes its way into Weird Stuff exists as part of a massive ecosystem of human lives — of engineers and manufacturers; sales people and marketing departments; logistics planners and truck drivers — that has shared in this process of failure.

Will there be enough jobs to go around? Will they pay a living wage? Terror, however, can also be helpful. The only way to harness this new age of failure is to learn how to bounce back from disaster and create the societal institutions that help us do so. The real question is whether we’re up for the challenge.

In ancient times, purple was a colour reserved for the royal family and the King exclusively. Only some favoured princelings were allowed to wear and only the king on ceremonial robes on important days. One should ask why? Because back then, all cloth dyes were made from natural products, like flower petals or crushed rocks; they either bled or faded and needed constant repair. One particular purple dye, which was culled from the glandular mucus of shellfish, was among the rarest and most prized colors. It was generally reserved for royalty. In Byzantium the name of the prince in line for the throne was “Porfyrogennitos” [born of purple] which menat that it was the male child first and directly in line for the throne. His purple “baby-coverlet” was the prized procession of all of his adult life, proving that he is the rightful heir to the position of Emperor of Byzantium. This was a great ally in a tumultuous life full of uncertainty, usurpation, and ambiguous fortunes in war and peace. And thus this purple “baby-cloth” became in later life the Emperor’s flag standard that had to be carried ahead of him always in both battle and through civilian imperial ceremonies and even in church. In short purple was the birthright of the Emperor alone in a whole multicultural and multihued empire… And yet it was just a piece of cloth dyed in a special way. A purple flag that this cloth eventually became the cloth accompanying the occupant of the throne to his grave. The Emperor’s shroud in death was purple as was his birth cloth. Funny how things work…
Actually this simple cloth was dyed with dye, that you can buy at any dime store for less than a few shillings, today, provides a great segway to tell and to understand the acceleration of innovation, terror, and large scale failure, that began 150 years ago.

Because all things about the colour purple changed in 1856, with a discovery by an 18-year-old English chemist named William Henry Perkin. Tinkering in his home laboratory, Perkin was trying to synthesize an artificial form of quinine, an antimalarial agent. Although he botched his experiments, he happened to notice that one substance maintained a bright and unexpected purple color that didn’t run or fade. Perkin, it turned out, had discovered a way of making arguably the world’s most coveted color from incredibly cheap coal tar. He patented his invention — the first synthetic dye — created a company and sold shares to raise capital for a factory. Eventually his dye, and generations of dye that followed, so thoroughly democratized the color purple that it became the emblematic color of cheesy English rock bands, Prince albums and fancy dress cloacks, for those willing to dare a hue slightly more bold than black when dressed as Vampires on Halloween.

Yet Perkin’s fortuitous failure, it’s safe to say, would have never occurred even a hundred years earlier. In pre-modern times, when starvation was common and there was little social insurance outside your clan, every individual bore the risk of any new idea. As a result, risks simply weren’t worth taking. If a clever idea for a crop rotation failed or an enhanced plow was ineffective, a farmer’s family might not get enough to eat. Children might die. Even if the innovation worked, any peasant who found himself with an abundance of crops would most likely soon find a representative of the local lord coming along to claim it. A similar process, one in which success was stolen and failure could be lethal, also ensured that carpenters, cobblers, bakers and the other skilled artisans would only innovate slowly, if at all. So most people adjusted accordingly by living near arable land, having as many children as possible (a good insurance policy) and playing it safe.

Our relationship with innovation finally began to change, however, during the Industrial Revolution. While individual inventors like James Watt and Eli Whitney tend to receive most of the credit, perhaps the most significant changes were not technological but rather legal and financial. The rise of stocks and bonds, patents and agricultural futures allowed a large number of people to broadly share the risks of possible failure and the rewards of potential success. If it weren’t for these tools, a tinkerer like Perkin would never have been messing around with an attempt at artificial quinine in the first place. And he wouldn’t have had any way to capitalize on his idea. Anyway, he probably would have been too consumed by tilling land and raising children.

And then we got Corporations. And things really stopped changing massively, becuase the secret of the corporation’s success was that it generally did not focus on truly transformative innovations.

Perkin’s invention may have brought cheap purple (and, later, green and red) dyes to the masses, but it helped upend whatever was left of the existing global supply chain for mollusks, with its small cottage-size dye houses and its artisanal crafts people who were working with lichen and bugs.

For millenniums, the economy had been built around subsistence farming, small-batch artisanal work and highly localized markets. Inventions like Perkin’s — and the steam engine, the spinning jenny, the telegraph, the Bessemer steel-production process — they are all Innovations that destroyed the last vestiges of this way of life, and ushered a new order of things…

Yours,
Pano

PS:
Yes — people lost their jobs but at the same time many new technical trade schools, colleges, and higher Universities were created to teach them new tricks and skills.

But if we only replace the fear of Innovation with the embrace of the newness and the glamour of change — we will both be able to escape the terror and also engage in Progress.

And that is all we can aspire to at this moment in time.


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