Inventions are inevitable

So, here’s the argument: inventions (including theories and technologies) are inevitably invented.  (This links nicely with Sid Winter’s thesis.) Thus we shouldn’t focus on or celebrate mythic “heroes” who happen to get credit for inventions that are inevitable – someone else would have invented them if the hero wasn’t around (Simonton highlights the increased instance of simultaneous discovery, here’s a wiki site cataloguing simultaneous discoveries).  As Robert Merton put it – “discoveries become virtually inevitable when prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tool accumulate.”

Kevin Kelly talks about this in his book What Technology WantsHe pulls in examples from mathematics and physics.  For example, Einstein was ahead of his time with the theory of relativity but some scholars were concurrently looking at similar questions and would inevitably have come up with the same theory.

Sort of an interesting issue embedded in here.  That is, discovering the realities and truths of nature is one thing – but clearly the possibilities and forms that technologies might take is a very different issue.  This is the space that the STS folks (Science & Technology Studies) have carved out – though they employ a confused epistemology and frequently overstep their bounds (Latour/Woolgar’s Laboratory Life is an example of this problem).  More perhaps on this later.

Here’s a figure from Kevin Kelly’s book (sorry, the quality isn’t the hottest).

Strategy and social movements

For a sociological approach to strategy, check out the work of sociologist James Jasper.  Jasper studies strategy in the context of social movements.

Here are a few pieces that readers might enjoy:

Steve Jobs’ deification serves a very basic and fundamental human need

“I am not that surprised that an academic of entrepreneurship (are you kidding me?) would lead a story about one of the world’s best innovators and CEO’s about that he actually and in fact ! OMG had body odour as a teenager because of his diet, not to mention the rest of your embarrassing piece. Forbes would be best sticking with writers that are inspired by such great entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs, and not with writers such as this, who are unhappy they have not had the courage to ‘live the life they love and not settle’ and so sit in front of their computer with not much else to do but trying to bring others down. Shame on you Mr Vermeulen”. 

This is just one of the comments I received on my earlier piece “Steve Jobs – the man was fallible” (also published on my Forbes blog). Of course, this was not unanticipated; having the audacity to suggest that, in fact, the great man did not possess the ability to walk on water was the closest thing to business blasphemy. And indeed a written stoning duly followed.

But why is suggesting that a human being like Steve Jobs was in fact fallible – who, in the same piece, I also called “a management phenomenon”, “fantastically able”, “a legend”, and “a great leader” – by some considered to be such an act of blasphemy? All I did was claim that he was “fallible”, “not omnipotent”, and “not always right”, which as far as I can see comes with the definition of being human?

And I guess that’s exactly it; in life and certainly in death Steve Jobs transcended the status of being human and reached the status of deity. A journalist of the Guardian compared the reaction (especially in the US) to the death of Steve Jobs with the reaction in England to the death of Princess Diana; a collective outpour of almost aggressive emotion by people who only ever saw the person they are grieving about briefly on television or at best in a distance. Suggesting Princess Diana was fallible was not a healthy idea immediately following her death (and still isn’t); nor was suggesting Steve Jobs was human. 

We are inclined to deify successful people in the public eye, and in our time that certainly includes CEOs. In the past, in various cultures, it may have been ancient warriors, Olympians, or saints. They became mythical and transcended humanity, quite literally reaching God-like status.

Historians and geneticists argue that this inclination for deification is actually deeply embedded in the human psyche, and we have evolved to be prone to worship. There is increasing consensus that man came to dominate the earth – and for instance drive out Neanderthalers, who were in fact stronger, likely more intelligent, and had more sophisticated tools – because of our superior ability to organize into larger social systems. And a crucial role in this, fostering social cohesion, was religion, which centers on myths and deities. This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is yearning to come out and be satisfied, and great people such as Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Lady Di serve to fulfill this need. 

But that of course does not mean that they were infallible and could in fact walk on water. We just don’t want to hear it. Great CEOs realize that their near deification is a gross exaggeration, and sometimes even get annoyed by its suggestion – Amex’s Ken Chenault told me that he did not like it at all, and I have seen that same reaction in Southwest’s Herb Kelleher. Slightly less-great CEOs do start to believe their own status, and people like Enron’s Jeff Skilling or Ahold’s Cees van der Hoeven come to mind; not coincidentally they are often associated with spectacular business downfalls. I have never spoken to Steve Jobs, but I am guessing he might not have disagreed with the qualifications “not omnipotent”, “not always right” and, most of all, “human”.

Interdisciplinary NSF Solicitation

Here’s an interdisciplinary NSF program solicitation that may interest strategy scholars.

An important research interaction has emerged at the interface of computing and economics and social sciences. The synergy between these fields creates a rich opportunity for studying questions that involve interconnected systems with economic and social aspects. This research interaction has already led to the identification of a number of underlying principles and research themes. These include network structures in economic interaction, theories of learning in the context of such networks, welfare properties of equilibria, the design of mechanisms with constraints, the complexity of computing equilibria, the robustness of equilibria, and the roles of information, reputation, and trust in economic and social interactions. These principles provide lines of attack on a set of important applications. These include the emergence of new kinds of on-line markets, the roles of economic issues in the architecture of the Internet, the design and analysis of markets in the developing world, and the roles of social and economic networks in innovation and knowledge creation.

Further details here.

The Genius versus Social Construction of Steve Jobs

For me Steve’s post raises the age-old question of whether the “greats” are geniuses or simply products of their time.  As the wiki entry for “great man theory” highlights, this question has been around for some time (for Thomas Carlyle history was the “biography of great men,” while both Tolstoy and Herbert Spencer cited social complexity and ridiculed Carlyle).

There are many reincarnations of this debate.  One of the more interesting ones focuses on the great ones of music, the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn.  Sociologist Tia DeNora wrote a provocative book that said the greats were (essentially accidental) products of their context (see her book Beethoven and the ‘construction’ of genius).  Others, like Rutgers Peter Kivvy, argue for the genius itself (see his book, the possessor and the possessed about Mozart).

This is a quite relevant debate in strategy, essentially, individual versus collective effects/heterogeneity.  There’s a decomposition, variance-components type question here, similar to the firm versus industry debate.  Of course, you can imagine that variance exists both at the individual and collective levels.  But I think this is a question that continues to be worth tackling.  (I’ve published some research related to this but I’ll spare the reader, for now.)

There’s a deeper discussion here about the social construction of hero-ness as well but I’ll leave that for another time.

What is problematic to me is the hand-waving that I see about how invention is, oh, all about context, social complexity, history, etc.  That type of explanation is simply shorthand and an admission that we have no clue what actually happened.  Don’t just say that it is complex.  Rather, explain the complexity.  Reminds me of this Jewkes et al quote from their 1969 book The Sources of Invention:

it is the practice of some writers to present a fuzzy picture of invention as a “social process”; to suggest that, if one inventor had not done what he did when he did, someone else would have done it. . . . this attitude—that nothing can be understood unless all is understood, that by piling one unresolved enigma upon another some all-comprehending solution is made the more likely—involves the error of “seeing depth in mere darkness”, as Sir Isaiah Berlin once put it (26–27).

More on this later.