Innovation Lessons from A Better Pencil

How do new ideas find their place in the economy? That is one of the issues that Dennis Baron addresses in his excellent book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers and the Digital Revolution. There is an excellent interview with Baron on Salon in which he outlines the argument of the book:

Historically, when the new communication device comes out, the reaction tends to be divided. Some people think it’s the best thing since sliced bread; other people fear it as the end of civilization as we know it. And most people take a wait and see attitude. And if it does something that they’re interested in, they pick up on it, if it doesn’t, they don’t buy into it.

I start with Plato’s critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They’re not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down — the ultimate irony.

We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won’t have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there’s no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant — it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of “this is going to revolutionize everything” versus “this is going to destroy everything.”

The book is well written and entertaining, but also very thought-provoking. Anyone that has been interested in the ‘is google making us stupid’ v. ‘everything bad is good for you’ debates should check it out.

I think that the book has two key lessons in it for innovators. The first is embodied in the quote above – every innovation has to fight to find space for itself in the world. Plato was against writing. Writing! The point that Schumpeter was actually getting at when he talked about the innovation unleashing ‘gales of creative destruction’ was that even the most incremental new innovation replaces something. It is inevitable. A consequence of this is that every innovation will be fought, no matter how trivial it might be. Replacement means that someone loses – even if it is just people that dislike change. You have to take this into account when you come up with new ideas. Who does your idea threaten, and how will you deal with them?

The second point is a bit more subtle. After talking about the history of people resisting new writing technologies, Barron spends the second half of the book talking about how the computer became a writing tool. One of the key turning points was conceptual – for a long time computers were only viewed as calculating machines. After all, ENIAC stood for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator – there’s nothing there to suggest that you could write an email with it eventually. Computers weren’t a threat to typewriters as the primary tool for writers until the 1980s – trying to write on a mainframe system or a dedicated typing computer even then was a tedious task fraught with potential disaster. It took someone to actually re-purpose the number-crunching computer for word processing by writing software to do just that. Among others, IBM discounted the importance of this use, and that is in part why they missed out on the importance of PCs.

This leads to the second lesson for innovators – the killer use of a new technology is often unclear for quite a while, and if you can figure out a way to re-purpose it, you have a chance to get out ahead of everyone. A big part of doing this is looking at the tools that we take for granted, and trying to imagine how they can be used in related but different domains – it’s the importance of making new connections again!

A Better Pencil is a terrific book. And it contains two great lessons for innovators. First, not everyone will love your new idea, no matter how great it is, so you have to be ready to fight to get it to spread. Second, think about ways to re-purpose technologies that we take for granted.

(Picture from Dennis Baron’s blog)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.