Disruptive innovation

Topics: Disruptive technology, Music industry, Innovation Pages: 9 (3073 words) Published: October 8, 2013
This post is Part I of A Brief History of Disruptive Innovation. Part II can be found here. For thousands of years, beginning around 10,000 BC in the Middle East, humankind embarked upon its first disruptive revolution. Until that point, humans had roamed the earth in hunter-gatherer societies, foraging for food. When ancient humans discovered farming, and began settling permanently, in one place, advancements in agricultural technology led to a surplus food supply, which in turn, led to surplus time. The result was unprecedented innovation, and explosive technological, economic and social development — hallmarks of recorded history. Still, the neolithic revolution is not without detractors. Jared Diamond, author of the famous “Guns, Germs and Steel,” posited in 2009 that the move from hunter gatherers to farmers was “the worst mistake in history.” Indeed, 12,000 years after the fact, the neolithic revolution has some serious retroactive detractors. While objections to farming’s impact are unlikely to impact our dependence on it, Diamond’s comments illustrate an important point — no innovation, no matter how obviously beneficial it might be, is immune from fierce criticism. When detractors of disruptive innovation live to see them introduced, that criticism turns to active opposition. Throughout history, the forces of the status quo have conspired to impede progress, and prevent radical innovations from claiming market space. Resistance to innovation is littered throughout history. Roman historian Pliny the Elder, as well as two other writers, tell of a radical inventor who brought a new type of glass before emperor Augustus. The glass was supposedly unbreakable; upon throwing it to the ground, various sources recount it bouncing, denting but not shattering. Augustus worried that the value of the glass would undermine the value of his gold and silver, so promptly ordered the man executed. “Flexible glass” or “vitrum flexile” was lost for almost 2,000 years, appearing sometime in the last one hundred years.* Thus, a single power holder, fearful for his immediate wealth, single-handedly suppressed an innovation for millennia. And that’s just the beginning. Mike Masnick points to the 17th century French textile industry as an early innovation stifler. When the question of how best to handle innovative cloth buttons was brought to the “masters of the weaving industry,” (think an ancient MPAA) they produced the following verdict: If a cloth weaver intends to process a piece according to his own invention, he must not set it on the loom, but should obtain permission from the judges of the town to employ the number and length of threads that he desires, after the question has been considered by four of the oldest merchants and four of the oldest weavers of the guild. The legacy weavers had a stated goal of maintaining the status quo, which meant that very few innovations were approved. Once the anti-innovation precedent had been established, the button makers guild, our incumbents, joined the fray, furious that certain tailors had made buttons out of cloth. The government reacted in accordance with the legacy button industries, imposing a steep fine on tailors who insisted upon using cloth buttons. However, the button guild maintained that the fine was insufficient. Following further lobbying attempts, they won the right to search homes, wardrobes and passerby in order to locate the offensive buttons. Violators were fined and arrested. While today, consumers may purchase a wide variety of buttons, the French weavers set a dangerous precedent: businesses which feel threatened by new competition turning to government to crush the opposition, rather than innovate themselves. The French government, in their suppression of Calico cloth, went further still. George Smith tells of delight at a new, cheap technology, which produced a cloth which was printed, rather than dyed. This new cloth changed the economic landscape in France, as...
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