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Creative destruction: a vital element of survival and enduring success

Watching creative destruction at work in nature is instructive.  Nature fosters innovation through diversification (mutations) to create new species and variants of existing species able to survive the forces that challenge the existing forms of life.  Charles Darwin was one of the first to recognize and describe this natural phenomenon.  Nature also represents forces that we, as humans, have tried to tame and resist – fire and ice, storm flood and drought, famine and disease, among them.  These forces drive some of the crises that allow nature to correct for overpopulation or overabundance.   Each crisis leads to a new beginning and an opportunity to do it better this time around – the natural process we refer to as evolution.  Darwin observed that amazingly, even the simplest creatures respond to such natural and ecological threats by multiplication and diversification – somehow intrinsically understanding that change is a natural ingredient of survival.  We alone as humans, tend to cling to the old order when faced with existential threats.


We pride ourselves (perhaps falsely) as having evolved to a state that no longer requires crises, like wars or revolutions, in order to adjust our course and steer toward a sustainable outcome.   We believe that because we have historically weathered dire predictions and found that human creativity and intelligence allowed us to escape the threatened limitations, that we will forever be able to repeat the process.  Evolution itself has taught us to be more cognizant of immediate dangers and crises than of those that approach us slowly and quietly.  By failing to see the slow-moving danger, we more and more frequently allow it to build to an almost unmanageable scale and hope for a last minute save.


Along the way, we adopt silly notions like “to big to fail.”  Our human capabilities of innovation and entrepreneurialism have indeed allowed us to repeatedly progress and evolve and set new boundaries for ourselves.  Creative destruction has allowed us, through a series of decades-long processes of technological innovation to develop electricity, automobiles, planes and trains, computers and telecommunications and a host of other technologies that have generally made our life richer, happier and longer but, historically, also more consumptive of the resources around us.  But, now having accomplished those means, we seem bent on discontinuing that process of creative destruction and instead believing that we, unlike those before us, can survive and thrive through stasis.


It is how we came to believe some of the truisms of the past:


“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”  — 1876, Western Union internal memo


“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.”  — 1903, President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co.


“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”  — 1926, Lee DeForest, American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube.


“Transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become a practical proposition.” — 1962, Dennis Gabor, British physicist.


“There is practically no chance communication space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the United States.”  — 1965, T. Craven, FCC Commissioner

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