The last week's "splash" created by Gladwell's review of new Chris Anderson's book, "Free", revived some old thoughts that I had about innovation. While the review in question is not what I want to talk about here, I will say that (unlike Seth Godin and Anil Dash) I tend to agree with Gladwell's analysis. The bigger problem here is that I find discussions like theirs, well, slightly obsolete. And here is why.
Gone are the days when it was easy (or justified, for that matter) to claim that a specific thing, model, or idea, represents a clear and sudden break with the past and establishment of something completely new. The problem is, that unlike Thomas Khun's explanation of scientific revolutions, today's innovations happen everywhere and at any time. Equally different from the past is the power of those innovations to shake and redefine the world as we know it.
Every day when I browse the Internet, there is at least 2-3 new ideas, all powerful enough to build a business model around them. In this environment, to claim that any of them shakes the already known business model is, to say the least, naive. That would be the same as claiming that anarchy is a legitimate social system. Anarchy exists only as an antidote to order, and already structured system of relations. To really shake those relations, the attack needs to happen within the same premises that those very structures exist. That is, the change needs to happen from within. The same as anarchy will never be a real, long-term, challenge to an already existent system, "free" will not have the power to overturn the system that operates on money. It certainly can add to it, transform it, or modify it, but for that to happen, the model of "free" needs to be integrated to or, coexistent with a multiplicity - or a continuum - of other business and organizational forms that can sustain the ambiguity of multiple systems of value.
That's the first point: there is no either-or situation, there is only a co-existence and interaction. Which leads me to my second point: within this continuum of a different and often contesting systems of worth, innovation can and never will be what it used to be: a sudden and complete change of relations (economic, social, organizational, cultural, etc). Gone are the days when a single invention could create a change of the scale that railroad did, or electricity, or a telephone. Now innovations are incremental, often localized, and regularly additive.
Just think marketing industry today: no matter how many people may proclaim death of one thing or another, the fact is that the Internet did not kill anything (or anyone, to my best knowledge) for the 10+ years since it became widely used. Did it modify things? Absolutely. But it did so by existing often in parallel with already existent media and advertising industries. Or, to put it more simply: innovations in today's marketing industry are a matter of a degree. What is considered super-innovative among certain set of marketing agencies is considered passe in others; what is a model de jour for some campaigns, is thought obsolete and retro in others. This situation only indicates that there is no one single marketing industry (as we may be used to thinking) - in its place came multiple, contesting, and co-existent marketing industries for clients to choose from based on their brand, business, or whatever other objectives. The main problem of the marketing industry is that the models that internet brought to existence do not sufficiently interact with those that already exist. And operative word here is not "death" but interaction.
And here is my final point: while biggest innovator today, Apple, can and does shift boundaries of user experience in mobile, for example, the truth is that there are still other mobile devices that people use. It is really hard for any modern innovation to create a giant break with the past. Which is not necessarily bad. I personally find it way more interesting to see how different business, design, and social models interact with each other, rather than to feverishly ponder on how one single thing may (or may not) change the world as we know it. So yes, the fact that there is ton of stuff shared and consumed for free online is really something new, but rather than stopping there, I would love to read a book detailing how this fact can be leveraged, combined, and incorporated smartly with all other possible and existing consumption/production models. Then these different models can create an ecosystem that can legitimately be regarded as "innovation-enabling" and as such, something that we really haven't seen before.
I guess I just don't believe in big ideas, big innovations, and lone inventors. Big ideas as well as big inventions are always a collaborative effort. (And if you don't believe me, read a great essay in this book on how savvy businessman Thomas Edison had to be in order to create a system where his inventions would make sense. Without it, we would still be in the dark, literally and figuratively). The fact that we may have not recognized in the past that innovations are not singular is, um, our bad.