11 responses

  1. Jeff
    April 30, 2014

    “Killing Linux/Macintosh in 1997 would have been, like Ray Bradbury’s butterfly-stomping time traveler, barely noticeable at the time but hugely consequential in the future.”

    While I get the hypothetical point, I think this scenario is more of a Pizarro/Cortez story than a Microsoft-as-failed Napoleon story. While Apple could have died then, it’s entirely conceivable, and I would argue likely, that another competitor would have sprung up. And I don’t see how Linux was killable at all, short of (ab)using the patent system to monopolize the entire operating system space.

    • Sam Bhagwat
      April 30, 2014

      The scenario you laid out is certainly possible. Two possible complications:

      (1) would a different non-Apple competitor have integrated hardware/software?

      Typically you have tightly coupled, integrated components at the beginning of a market and then over time it moves to modularized components (ie the late 90s PC ecosystem). Yet it was exactly that integrated hardware/software — a legacy backend technical decision which Apple was rethinking in 1997 — that enabled Apple to pull off the iPod and iPhone.

      (2) It’s not that you would need to kill Linux per se, but could the Android of 2005/6, and the cloud computing of 2008, have been built on the Linux of 1997?

  2. Stephen Borstelmann
    April 30, 2014

    And you are going to end the post on that note? Care to elaborate WHICH specific types of big systems tend not to equilibrate?

    • David Freedman
      May 7, 2014

      Couldn’t agree more.

  3. Hal Morris
    April 30, 2014

    Smart phones seem like what some people imagined PDAs would be 15-20 years ago “Personal Digital Assistants” — something we’d need to have at our fingertips all the time to function at our full capacity. The failure of PDAs left people pessimistic about realizing that sort of concept for several years, but it was actually there many years ago.

  4. Patrick Atwater
    May 3, 2014

    Fun little analysis that rings true — for me at least. Then again if I were to put on my skeptical cap, this whole argument seems like a justification for a “final vocabulary”1 for “change the world” types.

    1 To borrow Rorty’s excellent phrase for the foundational narrative beliefs we cling to regardless of what the world throws out.

  5. Curtis
    May 6, 2014

    As a public high school teacher I can attest to schools being ‘big systems’ that often do not equillibrate well after losing an individual. Looking top down there is overwhelming evidence that replacing an experienced teacher with a rookie significantly decreases classroom learning potential. From the bottom up, many students can think of a time when an irreplaceable teacher left and the void was never filled. Quality teachers may be the most irreplaceable individuals in any system.

    Not quite sure how this translates to the business world. Maybe mentor-protege relationships within a firm mirror teacher-student relationships in schools?

    • Sam Bhagwat
      May 7, 2014

      I can certainly believe that.

      Schools have the resources to make teachers show up for their classes. They don’t have (or perhaps metaphysically can’t have) the resources to nudge teachers be *good* teachers, that business organizations have.

      – They can’t/don’t measure performance: who is a good teacher?
      – They don’t have the resources/flexibility to hire/fire/promote/give nonstandard raises to good tenured teachers.
      – Because of factors including tenure, experienced, good teachers are unlikely to be on the job market. Also, schools don’t get more funding if student welfare increases. So they’re likely to want to hire a rookie teacher, rather than an equally experienced teacher, in this situation to save money. That is not true in business — if the VP sales quits, the company finds someone of equal experience.

      Thus, motivation is largely internal to the teacher, which doesn’t equilibrate.

  6. George
    May 7, 2014

    Great example from Curtis about trying to replace good teachers (well actually the school doesn’t necessarily recognize good or try to replace… that’s the point)

    That example helped me reflect that the begged question in this fascinating ribbonfarm post is how we measure significance.

    A lot (for some of us, most?) of what we do has no publicly or objectively measurable value, yet we value it and orient ourselves using that value perception.

    Some of the most ‘valuable’ employees, teachers, parents, scientists, artists, humanitarians… are precisely those who ignore the question of whether their quality of production and influences are publicly quantifiable or big-picture-significant. They get on with it and focus on their sphere of quality. Sometimes the effect in history is big and visible, but it doesn’t have to be: by not caring about being recognized as making a difference, these are the real difference-makers.

  7. Visakan V
    May 9, 2014

    I used to suffer from a sense that it wasn’t worth doing anything because someone somewhere is doing better, or will do better some time in the future. I resolved this when thinking about what Elon Musk said about Tesla Motors: the goal is to accelerate the development of electric vehicles. If Tesla didn’t exist, someone else would do it eventually- but the idea is to put pressure on it, to live in the future and drag it to meet the present. That I can get behind; that strikes me as meaningful. To accelerate development in some way.

    • Kay
      May 9, 2014

      Elon Musk rationalizes his actions because doing R&D with a passion is a bipolar experience, something you go through phases of hope, joy and suffering. So when you are in a love story with your current project, enthusiasm, jealousy, fear that someone else may be the first and all kinds of other irrational desires are not unusual. In retrospect, when the story is over, no matter which outcome, one might grant oneself a lukewarm acknowledgment that one was part of a broader, ambient progress, that one helped to accelerate some general movement or something alike but this is never the whole story one tells to oneself.

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