09 Jan Open Minds

We started Comradity to make a place for open-minded professionals to innovate together.

The biggest challenge is opening minds.

Why? Even the most innovative are self-censuring.

One factor is too much information. Specifically, too much contradictory information. How does anyone know whom or what to trust?

For example, many predictors claim that this new decade will replicate the roaring twenties. While others are predicting doomsday. Wall Street Journal Venture Capital/Technology correspondent, Andy Kessler, predicts that the 2020’s will be a new tech boom, like the roaring twenties a hundred years ago. Some of the comments cheered on the vision of a prosperous decade. Others were more thoughtful about the significance of the innovations that propelled the roaring twenties, relative to the innovations Kessler predicts:

One commentator, Deane Schulze references Robert J. Gordon’s book The Rise and Fall of American Growth. His position is that the innovations that propelled the roaring twenties boom were unimaginable in 1870 and nothing like that will happen again.

I think of Robert Gordon’s seminal book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”.  It takes new revolutionary innovations to really drive GDP growth, and then only after enough time for the revolutionary technologies to diffuse through the economy.  Gordon says the two most important inventions for economic growth were the commercial electric grid and the internal combustion engines.  Edison invented a mass producible light bulb in 1878.  The internal combustion engine evolved in the 1870s.  It was a couple of decades before both of these inventions paid off in economic terms.

I don’t see anything as revolutionary as the ICE and electric grid were happening today.  And neither does Andy Kessler.

This inspired me to think of my Grandfather, Joe Baldridge, who was in the first peak of his life during the roaring twenties (he lived 100 years until 1989).

As we’ve evolved further, we also have lost the insight into what was lost from these unimagined changes.

For example, my Grandfather was born in 1898. He was a great communicator, writing long letters, etc. But he had no interest in talking on the phone. All you’d get was hello, yes, no, good-bye. He didn’t trust not being able to see or feel the presence of the other person. Without his perspective, I wouldn’t realize that we have lost something in our interpersonal relationships because of communication technology. I think it’s knowing whom to trust.

He also typed up notable excerpts of books he read or poetry that moved him. Most of those use metaphors from nature to tell their stories. Many aren’t well-known today. Without his perspective, I wouldn’t realize that  we’ve lost our awareness of nature to make sense of  human ups and downs.

But I think we all sense in our gut that’s something missing. And it’s not more of faster, better, cheaper.

I was surprised that that comment has 34 likes, at the time of writing this post, suggesting that I am not alone in believing that there is something missing. Something we don’t imagine, yet.

I agree that the impact of “faster and cheaper” is not changing the day-to-day lives of people the way electricity did. But the purpose of “faster and cheaper” isn’t to improve quality of life. The unexpected consequences are often worse. First because cheaper and faster requires scale to be sustainable, financially. And second, because more isn’t necessarily better.

Doing something more can destroys its value. More antibiotic use has decreased their effectiveness. I’m not a medical professional, but I’ve seen the same pattern in my advertising experience. When television networks doubled revenues by converting from :60’s to:30’s they ignored the fact that television advertising was more effective because of less clutter than newspapers which easily met increased demand with more and more pages of ads, just as the internet has grown webpages. The exponential growth in advertising clutter since then is history. Today the media business model has shifted from selling ad placements to exploiting customer data.

Most innovations since 1970, are designed to exploit resources at scale – customer data, natural resources, labor force – for the benefit of shareholders. Simply put, if the purpose of an innovation is to exploit, it is very unlikely that the outcome will be to add value and will likely erode quality of life.

Unfortunately, this erosion has been so insidious that we aren’t aware of what we are losing and we can’t imagine the alternative.

Everything is relative. Yes there may never be a technological innovation that creates the unimaginable, as there was during the century between 1870 and 1970. But maybe we’ve reached a new context for the unimaginable.

For those who are open-minded to a new context for the unimaginable, we recommend starting with a different objective – not to exploit resources – but to add value to them. Not by making them cheaper and faster to experience, but by making them better and worth paying more for.

Let’s open more minds by remembering why the unimaginable emerged and delivered returns on investment later.

I wonder if Robert Gordon is open-minded to the possibility that there is a new context for the unimaginable.  And what’s replicable is the work ethic and purpose that preceded the roaring twenties. That is adding value to people’s day to day lives.