Kitchens of Extinction

Digital Darwinism by Tom Goodwin

I agree with a lot that’s in this book. But I left feeling uneasy by the extent to which I agree with it so I want to strike a contrarian note – where I hopefully succeed in offending everyone.

First of all, what do I agree with:

  • The author decries the “innovation theatre” that occurs in large organizations – where an innovation lab is founded, post-it notes are stuck to walls and bugger all changes.
  • He argues for a human-centered approach to design.
  • He calls for large organizations to both take more risks and to be more long term in their thinking and doing.
  • He looks back historically at previous technology transitions (e.g. electricity) to identify parallels with current digital trends.

That’s a gross oversimplification but if you want more then just read the damn thing. It’s affordable, well-written and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

So what is the source of my unease?

I see a lot of claims that we are living through a period of unprecedented change or that the rate of change will only increase from today onwards. And those claims are true. It certainly feels like everything is speeding up – with new technologies being introduced ever more rapidly.

At the same time, some things feel like they are slowing down. Cultural critics like Simon Reynolds and the late Mark Fisher talk about the sense of stasis and retromania characterizing music, film, and TV. New business creation in the US actually decreased after the 2008 recession for longer than expected. Productivity has been stagnant since the turn of the millennium. All that new technology has not had the impact of electricity. Goodwin is not alone in looking to electricity (Mcafee and Brynjolfsson do something similar in Machine Platform Crowd).

Change is all around us but it’s happening at multiple speeds. And things go forward. And in reverse. And stand still. It bears more resemblance to rain storm than a Hyperloop. Going back to theories of evolution, species may change slowly over a period of time (gradualism) or in sudden spurts with lengthy periods of nothing much (punctuated equilibrium).

While is psychologically healthy to focus on what you can control, most corporations operate within broader structures that limit their effective course of action. The biggest limit is the stock market. The tech behemoths have circumvented this with ownership structures that mean they are effectively privately-controlled companies with access to a stock market valuation that makes it easier to acquire and hire. But for companies not structured in this way, profitability and predictability are prized. This situation is probably stable for now. But eventually the context (economic, social, regulatory, technology) will change this and it will no longer be stable. The calm passes and the storm comes. The apex predator dies and a new ecosystem emerges. We live in the Shareholder Value Period (just as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors lived in the Cretaceous Period). This period began on August 12 1981 (but its roots go back far further). Nothing lasts forever.

There are three main beefs I have the book.

Goodwin deploys his metaphors too shallowly. The book is called Digital Darwinism but the term “natural selection” does not appear in it. “Evolution” appears a grand total of 7 times. He uses the metaphor of a skyscraper and refers to shearing layers briefly but then moves quickly on. We never stop and think through what it means to view an industry as a species under selective pressure. Or how time can move at different velocities and accelerations over the same site. The metaphors feel like platinum class airport lounges – a stopgap between connecting flights of fancy. The electricity chapter shows that he is capable of doing this. Such a book would be stranger and probably sell less but it would be more interesting and distinctive.

Chapter 7 implores us to “celebrate failure”. I don’t have a problem with that exhortation (although we should always be seeking new failures rather than familiar ones). But the book only features failure sporadically. If you increase the risks you take then you increase the number of failures that you experience. It feels like it could do with a big dose of Phil Rosenzweig – the grumpy management anti-guru. What does it look like when a firm tries to reinvent itself and it fails? And what can the rest of us learn from that?

The cliché is “write what you know”. If you spend your life at conferences and on planes, there is a risk that you turn into Thomas L Friedman. That’s fine if you are writing for those who live a similar lifestyle but it does not resonate with those who don’t.

Anyway. Things don’t change. Until they do. Stay alert.

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