Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Disruption. Adaptation. Evolution.

I recently ran across Charles Stross's post on how to build a near-future science fictional world.  Stross thinks that the future is merely new layers on top of old stuff.  The only way an old layer of stuff gets discarded is if the new layer of technology/culture/whathaveyou can completely replace the old one, and even then you have to wait for the old stuff to decay.

That's close, but it's not quite right.  Having recently read Tim Harford's Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, I've been thinking a lot about disruptive events as a framework for looking at how cultures change.

First, a few words on disruptions.  We tend to think of a disruptive innovation as one that suddenly invalidates an existing market, but that's not really what happens.  Most disruptions start out as an innovation in a market that's adjacent to, but not congruent with, the market that's eventually going to get killed.  The innovation is usually crudely featured and not even close to competitive with the state of the art of the disruptee, but it offers a specific capability that a small segment of users desperately need.  Harford's example of this was web-based mail, particularly gmail.  Web mail started out life with bad distribution list management, poor threading, no calendaring, trivial formatting capabilities.  In short, it was utterly unsuited for the enterprise market, which was dominated by Outlook.  But web mail offered one feature that was vital to a certain class of user:  the ability to log on from any browser, anywhere, and interact with mail.  For the user that roamed from computer to computer, device to device, and couldn't afford to install Outlook everywhere he went, the advantage of location-independence offset the crudity of web mail system.

Of course, Microsoft was an early entrant into web mail with Hotmail.  But it never made sense for MS to invest in Hotmail, because they always got a better return investing in knocking out the next 150 features in Outlook to satisfy the Fortune 1000 customers than it did to divert resources to Hotmail.  Google, on the other hand, didn't have a cash cow to protect, so they slowly enriched the Gmail feature set until it's now on the cusp of being able to "suddenly" disrupt the enterprise email market.  I'm confident that 5 years from now, Outlook sales will be down sharply.  10 years from now, Outlook will be quaint.  15 years from now, it will have vanished.  So disruption always sneaks up on you.

The email example is instructive, but it's a fairly modest disruption when we're dealing with the difference between web mail and client-server mail.  But disruptions can impact the culture in huge, unanticipated ways when use of the new, disruptive innovation changes one of our core cultural processes.

Human beings are a lot simpler than you might imagine.  We like to think of our lives as complex, ever-changing tapestries of experiences and interactions with our environment.  But the brain's great talent is to categorize varied experiences into as small a set of conditions as possible, then react to those conditions using as small a set of behaviors as possible.  Yes, those behaviors are executed with minor variations for the unique portions of each condition, but that's the brain's other great talent:  it can adjust a learned behavior in real-time without having to invent a completely new behavior.

This set of learned behaviors is actually pretty small.  You can create a complex culture with a small number of learned behaviors:  Driving a car.  Eating at a table.  Meeting a new person.  Using a toilet.  Taking a shower.  Tucking your kids into bed at night.  Playing catch.  Going on a date.  Buying something.  Engaging in ritual.  Believing--or not believing--in God.  Reading.  Making an argument.  Solving a problem.  Dealing with your emotions.

This is obviously only a fraction of the things that people do, but I'm willing to bet that it's closer to 1% or 2% of the total list of behaviors than it is to .001% or .002%.  Of course, these learned behaviors are assisted by a few doozies that are instinctive or semi-instinctive, including such things as language, sex, locomotion, eating, etc.  But, even though those behaviors are incredibly complicated, they're still fairly finite, and they act as primitives upon which the culturally instilled behaviors rely.

Right about now you'll be asking, "What the hell does this have to do with disruption?"  The answer is that the goods and services we consume have deeply-ingrained cultural behaviors underlying them.  There are tens of thousands of products that dovetail perfectly with how we've learned to prepare and communally eat food.  Other tens of thousands play to the ways we were taught to socialize and attract mates.  Still other products assist our ability to identify and solve complex problems.

In general, products that don't dovetail well with our set of cultural behaviors don't do very well in the market.  But the same processes that cause disruptive products to succeed as they evolve adjacent to more established products can sometimes cause a new, disruptive behavior to be learned adjacent to an established, culturally pervasive behavior.  Cultural disruptions are much rarer than market disruptions.  Returning to the web mail example, the cultural behaviors of using written language to express yourself to another isn't much different between snail mail or client-based email or web mail.  But when you marry the convenience of communicating in text from mobile devices, even though the modes of written expression that you can engage in are vastly more limited than in a letter or email, you begin to see the beginnings of a major cultural disruption, radiating out along several different behaviors.  People who wouldn't dream of composing a letter or email in public are now perfectly content to spend 30 seconds texting someone, with all the attendant rudeness associated with it.  Formal written language gets mutilated because texting is so awkward that linguistic shorthand has to be developed.  And, possibly most significantly, linguistic-based reasoning itself gets changed from an expository form, where large thoughts are formed, expressed, and responded to, to a more interactive form, where simple thoughts bounce back and forth between two or more people to form a sort of gestalt or groupthink.

Just as with product disruptions, the insertion of a cultural disruption doesn't immediately destroy the old forms of behavior, because the old forms are better suited for the majority of the culture that's still oriented around the old environment.  But, even while letters and books and email still make up the majority of the words being written, and while the state of the art of these behaviors becomes increasingly refined, the texters and tweeters and, to a lesser extent, the bloggers and even the PowerPointers are rapidly evolving a new, rich set of cultural behaviors that will ultimately become superior to expository prose and will therefore sweep it away.  We sure as hell aren't there yet, but it'll happen.

So Stross is right about the layers of new stuff, but only up to a point.  Disruptive layers ultimately digest the old layers next to which they evolved.

It's worth looking a little more at today's culture through the lens of cultural disruptions.  They're harder than you might think to spot, because all disruptions appear to be innocuous at first, and the amount of time required for them to affect the culture significantly can be tens or even hundreds of years.  At some point, I'd like to make a list of all of these, but for now, I'd like to concentrate of the most serious cultural disruption of the last thousand years:  the rise of electronic media.

We're used to media now.  It pervades our culture.  But it's important to realize that media has not only disrupted the culture by increasing the flow of information to the individual by at least four orders of magnitude; it's also changed our habits of thought.

Human beings are evolved to process information in real time.  See the sabertooth tiger, run away.  Spot the tasty berry, eat it.  Find your offspring, protect it.  None of these things require complicated reasoning or abstract thought.  And yet abstract thought conferred such a survival advantage that it became highly conserved.  From the rise of language, to the neolithic revolution, up through the civilizations of the ancient and classical world, and even through the rise of the printing press, the renaissance, and the early industrial revolution, the culture conferred greater and greater rewards on those who could think abstractly and use language and writing to communicate those thoughts to others so that they could be acted upon.

So we've got 3 or 4 million years of evolution that has tailored human beings to use an "immediate paradigm":  see, hear, act, repeat.  And that was significantly disrupted by a new, culturally agile "expository paradigm":  talk, listen, read, imagine, think, communicate, act.  The vast majority of cultural progress is based on the expository paradigm.  Effectively, cultural progress was based on words.  And not just any words:  it's based on exposition and reasoned arguments.

This brings us up to 1909 and the first mass radio broadcast by Charles Herrold.

Suddenly, mass culture could be impacted not just by exposition but by conversation.  Drama, which previously had been available only to small audiences, became available to a mass audience.  Movies and television soon followed, with visual depictions of stories and the conversations that went along with them.

Note that we're still firmly rooted in Stross's "new things are layered on old things" paradigm at this point.  But the seeds of the disruption are now sown:  for the first time since the neolithic revolution, there are now cultural constructs that can appeal to humanity's evolved, immediate see/hear/act paradigm.  They're crude constructs.  They're one-way.  And the expository, carefully reasoned forms of communication aren't in much danger of being supplanted.  But a new paradigm, a "media paradigm", much more closely aligned with the evolved immediate paradigm, is in place.

Fast-forward to today.  The expository paradigm is holding on by its fingernails.  Give children a choice between a book and a video game and a majority will choose the latter.  The video game fits the more natural media paradigm, and is therefore much more easily assimilated by a child than the expository paradigm used by the book.  And it's not that the video game isn't educating and developing the child, both cognitively and culturally.  But it isn't training the child to function in the expository world.  We are, in essence, about at the same point in media's cultural disruption that web mail is in its market disruption.  The old paradigm is still dominant for getting real work done, but the smart money is already trying to figure out how to get the same work done in the new paradigm, because it's seen to be inevitable.

Unfortunately, in the case of media, figuring out how to get the same work done with media that is currently being done with exposition isn't obvious.  The world still runs on advances in science, technology, philosophy, ethics.  But the media paradigm doesn't have good replacements for most of the thought that goes on it these disciplines, the majority of whose advances are still firmly rooted in exposition.  The net result is likely to be a temporary slowdown in innovation as the culture develops the tools to accomplish the tasks that only the expository paradigm can still do, in the new media paradigm.

There are glints of light at the end of the tunnel.  Real science can now be accomplished through simulation, which is fundamentally a media tool, albeit one grounded on a simpler, more immediate kind of expository reasoning.  The aforementioned revolution in texting and social media is slowly evolving a new way to interact with complex problems.  Web resources like Khan Academy on other computer learning systems are slowly enriching children's training in the expository paradigm by driving it through media channels.

But the gap is still huge and, unlike Stross's new-layered-on-old hypothesis, there are likely to be real deficits in education for the foreseeable future.  In education, in effect, the new is cannibalizing the old, because we don't know how to develop a child's cognition in both paradigms simultaneously.  Until we figure that out, the disruption will continue.

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