Digital culture thrives on stories of disruption – of ancient industries and businesses swept aside in the space of years by innovative challengers. The record industry, Borders, Polaroid, Kodak… The inevitability of disruption has become an article of faith for some commentators. The cry goes out – “adapt or die!”
One question haunts these stories – how did this happen? Why didn’t companies and industries adapt? Why didn’t a record company create Napster? The latest version of the story is the one being told about Instagram – if a company based around sharing photos with retro filters attached can sell for a billion dollars, why couldn’t Polaroid or Kodak, who invented those filters, save themselves?
In the Instagram case, the question is presented as a bittersweet irony – people mostly liked Polaroid, after all. In the record industry case, it’s used as a blanket justification for piracy: if the biz had just listened to its customers, this wouldn’t have happened! They deserve it!!
Of course big companies must try to innovate if they are to survive and grow. The only problem is that innovation is really hard. Really, really hard. Almost impossible for an established company, as this excellent New York Times article points out. For a wealth of reasons – business plans, shareholder demands, company culture, operational realities, blindness to real consumer appetite – market leaders can’t actually do what seems obvious to outsiders. As the piece puts it, “Even if Polaroid or Kodak could have developed Instagram, it’s likely that the project would have been killed anyway.”
“Adapt or die!” is an evolutionary metaphor, so let’s use another evolutionary metaphor to illustrate this. As Richard Dawkins’ explains in Climbing Mount Improbable, insects have evolved a way of seeing – with compound eyes – which has got about as efficient as it can be. Is it the best way of seeing? No – the system of lensed eyes (as used by mammals) is much better. But insects cannot evolve mammalian eyes – there’s no incremental way of getting from A to B. They’d have to junk their current eyes and start again – not an outcome which is likely to be selected.
“Who are you calling an evolutionary dead end?”
Of course insects are one of the (if not the) most successful life forms, so obviously their bad eyes don’t matter. But if some new species evolved from another source, otherwise very like insects but with lensed eyes, then insects could be in trouble in the long-term. Their best bet would be to destroy the competitors while they still have a huge numeric advantage – probably quite likely in a largely cultureless, natural and harsh world. But in the business world it’s rather harder to kill someone else’s new ideas!
The parallel with “disrupted” businesses is obvious. “Adapt or die!” is glib advice, and spectacularly useless if the only ‘adaptions’ that can be made will kill the business even faster. So the triumphalism, hindsight and schadenfreude of the digital victors might be justified, but might equally be wholly unfair.
(Thanks to Susan Griffin and Will Headley for contributions to this post!)