From Off White Papers:
Perhaps it was on the limb-strewn battlefields during the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s that one disruptive innovation gained great favor with a whole generation of adherents. Young doctors on the frontlines readily embraced Dr. Joseph Lister’s new and rather simple technique for combat triage using anti-septic surgery for life-saving amputations and skin piercing compound bone fractures. Previously almost any large incision resulted in death from infection caused by unsanitary conditions.
Lister’s carbolic acid concoction was easy to use and quite effective at getting the job done even in the field of battle. It prevented infection from what turned out to be airborne microbes. Unfortunately the U.S. medical establishment did not embrace Lister’s radical idea of germ theory even when presented with incontrovertible evidence. They defended the long-standing medical wisdom that bad air or miasma were the source of infection, and not invisible microbes. Germ theory was outright rejected. While there was ample documentation and statistics provided by Lister to the AMA and the establishment, it would take a public outcry after the assassination attempt and the unfortunate, and probably avoidable, death of U. S. President James Garfield to create a serious enough crisis to challenge the entrenched thinking of the old guard. A paradigm shift was at hand.
The medical establishment’s resistance to Lister’s technique is an instructive narrative in trying to better understand innovations that, on the face of things, should catch on and spread rapidly. Yet in certain domains, where entrenched worldviews, attitudes and values are deeply woven into the societal architecture, innovation can come to a grinding halt. This is particularly noticeable in those domains with multiple stakeholders whose identities and livelihoods are being challenged by the threat of innovation. In those situations where simply getting well-defined jobs done a product or service’s utility is the main driver. But in those domains where stakeholders’ identities are being challenged the identity function can often overwhelm the more straightforward utility of the innovation. In turn, the predictive power of disruptive innovation theory is diminished.
. . . .
Inherent in every product or service is both a utility function and an identity function. Understanding each of these functions and the interaction between the two might shed light on some of the anomalies observed in the original theory. It appears that in utility-centric products and services such as mini-mills, semi-conductors, disk drives, MP3 files, Wikipedia, Amazon and the like, the original theory does keep its predictive potency. Consumers and non-consumers with no vested interest in anything other than “getting the job done” will change behaviors quickly and readily with little anxiety. They are simply focused on the product or service’s utility—and the incumbent will be disrupted. All you need to think about is how quickly we “consumers” (or the new “non-consumers” as the case may be) migrated from vinyl to cartridge to cassette to CDs to MP3s on our iPods; from Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia; from Borders to Amazon.
In utility-centric innovations water runs downhill; there seems to be very little consumer resistance to successful adoption and diffusion. Resistance to change, however, does often come from within from industry incumbents whose jobs are dependent on maintaining the existing business model and power dynamics. As Upton Sinclair said “never expect someone to understand change when their livelihood depends on not understanding it.”
. . . .
ITunes successfully introduced modularity to the consumer who could now buy singles rather than an entire album to the dismay of most record industry executives and to the occasional artist protestation. The interdependence created by having to buy 16 songs when you only really wanted four might have been highly profitable for the record companies but over-served the consumer at a cost substantially higher than purchasing the four singles. No wonder, as the original theory neatly predicted, disruption in the music industry was fast and ugly.
In high-identity domains, however, products and services are almost always highly interdependent and successful modular architecture is elusive. Even when the consumer is over-served and the price too expensive, and modular solutions are “good enough” resistance is still encountered.
Link to the rest at Off White Papers
“in certain domains, where entrenched worldviews, attitudes and values are deeply woven into the societal architecture, innovation can come to a grinding halt. ”
Sounds like traditional publishing.
For PG, understanding the difference in disruptive innovation for products that present a utility function vs. those that present an identity function was useful.
He would suggest that for most readers, books serve a utility function. Whoever can provide the reader with a book that pleases the reader most efficiently will get the reader’s business.
On the other hand, for publishers and agents and booksellers and many traditionally-published authors, books are definitely the basis of identity and serve an identity function. “Literary culture” is a pure identity construct.
Clearly, the value of the identity as an author whose books are the product of a well-known publisher outweighs the increased monetary value that self-publishing presents to a significant number of traditionally-published authors. Hence, some tradpubbed authors feel impelled to vociferously trash indie authors to protect the value of their identity. Indie authors are breaking the rules that underlie that identity.
The identity function is also prominent in the rapturous descriptions of the joys of purchasing physical books in an physical bookstore. For a reader who finds a basis for identity in being a “book person,” as well as for booksellers and producers of physical books, the physical-bookstores-for-physical-books meme, complete with deep conversations concerning the merits of one book over another, Amazon is anathema. Clicking “Add to Cart” just doesn’t bring on the rapture for these people.
However, pursuing the book-person identity as a reader requires access to a bookstore and a decision to devote time to the browsing/discussion/purchasing pursuits instead of competing pursuits like making a living, family life, GOT or actually reading books.
PG suggests that the Amazon vs. the rest of the world battle will be fought and won with readers and that, for the vast majority of readers, books serve a utility function. For utility-focused readers, the combination of ebooks and Amazon’s convenience and pricing are the clear winner, disrupting and replacing the traditional world of books.
The book identity group is simply unable to impose its will on the online Amazon market at least in the United States. We do see organized attempts by book identity people to hamstring Amazon with pricing, taxation and other impediments in some non-US jurisdictions, but PG believes any success in these attempts would be a Pyrrhic victory because interfering with the tremendous reader benefits of ecommerce coupled with ebooks with lower prices would result in fewer readers buying fewer books.
No one has compared Jeff Bezos to Joseph Lister, but PG suggests Amazon’s efforts to make books cheap and easy to purchase is, in its own way, just as life-saving for literature and reading in the 21st century as carbolic acid was for the wounded combatants in the Franco-Prussian War.
And ebooks smell a lot better than carbolic acid does.