Fear and Scorn versus Idea Diffusion

Lots of new ideas fail. Many of them are great ideas, and they’ve been proven to solve an important problem, yet they still fail. Why? Because in addition to having a great idea, and making it work, if we are innovating we also have to get the idea to spread.

Part of the problem is that to get people to take up our idea, we often have to get them to abandon a competing idea first. This if often challenging.

In I Live in the Future & Here’s How it Works, Nick Bilton illustrates two of the other enemies of idea diffusion: fear and scorn. First up – fear. Here is one of the first responses to the invention of the telephone:

No one who can sit in his study with his telephone by his side and thus listen to the performance of an opera at the Academy will care to go to Fourteenth Street and to spend the evening in a hot and crowded building… It is an unpleasant task to point out a possibly sinister purpose on the part of an inventor of conceded genius and ostensibly benevolent intentions. Nevertheless, a patriotic regard for the success of our approaching Centennial celebration renders it necessary to warn the managers of the Philadelphia exhibitions that the telephone may really be a device of the enemies of the Republic.

So, telephones will mean that no one will ever leave their house again (why would you?), and are actually designed to bring about the downfall of America!

Then there’s this a year later concerning an even great threat – the phonograph!

There is good reason to believe that if the phonograph proves to be what its inventor claims that it is, both book-making and reading will fall into disuse…. Blessed will be the lot of the small boy of the future. He will never have to learn his letters or to wrestle with the spelling book…

Fear is often used to try to prevent the spread of new ideas. Another weapon is scorn. Consider this from Clifford Stoll from 1995:

But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

Why do we see this? In part, it’s because supporters of new ideas often wildly oversell their benefits, thus inviting a backlash. We’re seeing this play out again with the is social media good or bad for social change argument (great summary here, which also shows that of course the truth is somewhere in the middle).

A big part of the problem is that when a new idea is introduced, we have absolutely no idea what it’s impact will actually be. Everyone is speculating – both those who are trying to support it, and those who are fighting against it. In some respects, these ideas are Rorschach tests – the reactions that we read aren’t really about the impact of the idea, but instead are projections of the obsessions of the authors.

In any case, if you are an innovator, fear and scorn are problems. They will be used to argue against your new idea, no matter how great it is. That is one of the reasons why getting your idea to spread is a critical part of the innovation process. Diffusion problems can kill even the best ideas.

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

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