Monday, May 26, 2008

When Innovation Means Starvation

(I've gone a little bit historical in this posting, but there's a great book--Carroll Pursell's "The Machine in America"--highlighted below, a recent "Wall Street Journal" article by Michael Malone, and a cool note about the American axe. Sometimes connecting-the-dots is a long, strange journey. Enjoy!)

In 1893, a 32-year old Wisconsin history teacher spoke at the Chicago World’s Fair, delivering a monograph entitled The Significance of the Frontier in American History to the American Historical Association.

In his remarks, Frederick Jackson Turner rejected the long-held concept that America could best be understood in terms of its European origins.

Instead, Turner said, if we want to understand the people of the United States, we should face not toward the Atlantic coast and Europe, but to the Great West. He wrote that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”

The Turner (or “Frontier”) Thesis came to be the best known, most powerful idea in American History, and likely the discipline’s single greatest innovation. (Don't ever forget that historians are among the world's great innovators, shaping events to their purposes.) The idea that the American character was conditioned by a series of frontier zones which succeeded each other until the year 1890 was taken as an article of faith for some 35 years after Turner offered it, revolutionizing the teaching of American history and the way in which Americans thought about themselves.

(As an aside, this is exactly what the Chicago World’s Fair was designed to do: highlight American “exceptionalism.” Held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, and to show that Chicago had arisen from the ashes of its horrific 1871 fire, the Fair barely broke even (thanks mostly to its ferris wheel) and made the great mistake of rejecting Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the great purveyor of American exceptionalism. Bill Cody, determined to take advantage of the world audience, staked his tents next-door to the Fair and proceeded to dispense his own particular flavor of the American frontier myth, raking in cash and sharing none of it with the Fair.)

So, it was with great interest that I read Michael Malone’s article in the May 19, 2008 Wall Street Journal. In it, Malone suggests that the closing of the physical frontier in the nineteenth century led to a new kind of American cowboy and frontiersmen, one who would find his prairie to be “the uninvented new product, the unexploited new market and the untried new business plan.”

In other words, Malone suggests, with America’s push to the Pacific ending, “The great new American frontiers proved to be those of business, science and technology.”

We became, and continue to be (if you follow the argument) Daniel Boone with a semiconductor and a sixty-second elevator pitch.

It’s an interesting premise, and I suspect Mr. Malone is very smart and knows what he’s talking about. Certainly, the current myth in Silicon Valley—of the rootin-tootin cowboy entrepreneur—and before that, of the high-flying Wall Street financier, flows naturally from Turner’s Thesis and Malone’s premise.

But, as the saying goes, hold yer horses.

While the Turner Thesis was largely unchallenged for a generation, and continues to have its supporters, it is not without its problems.

For example, as powerful as the frontier might have been in American life in the 18th and 19th centuries, urbanization—the birth of great cities in America—was an even stronger social and cultural force. The headlong rush from farm to city impacted more Americans than did the movement West, and did at least as much to shape the American character.

Likewise, immigration—both for the immigrant and the “native”—was an incredibly powerful force shaping the national character, and completely independent of the frontier.

And, of course, Americans were busy exploiting, and being exploited by, the Industrial Revolution.

Indeed, for the vast majority of eighteenth-century Americans, urbanization, immigration and the Industrial Revolution would shape their affairs far more than the closing of some distant frontier.

In support of this, I’ve been making my way through Carroll Pursell’s The Machine in America, a highly readable overview of European technology’s crossing to America, and what Americans eventually made of it.

Here are four key takeaways from Pursell:
1. For 150 years from the founding of Jamestown and Plymouth, American technology changed very, very slowly. By the mid-eighteenth century, American artisans seemed quaint and backward to Europeans. (As an example, lighting used in American colonial homes was not much better than that found at the beginning of the Christian era.) So, after a century of frontier living, technological innovation was still a very weak impulse in America.

2. In fact, in colonial America, the very word innovation had negative and even sinister connotations of unsound and dangerously reckless pride.

3. The transfer of technology depended on the immigration of particular people with particular skills. Need a tanner? Get one from England. Same with millers, weavers, sawyers and miners. The great frontier was dangerous and unpredictable, and when new skills were needed to tame it, they came not so much from Yankee ingenuity as from the Mother Country.

4. Until the eighteenth century—and not really until the nineteenth--technology was one of the most conservative of human activities. Since it provided the necessary link between human beings and their access to food, shelter and other basic means of survival, technology was too important to tamper with except under profound necessity.
In this context, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a deeply-held impulse of self-preservation, explaining why American business leaders have had such a difficult time creating innovation cultures in an age no longer ruled by "innovate and die," but by “innovate or die.”

Hence, I offer up what I believe to be the original Lesson of Innovation: “If it means the possibility of starving, you won’t innovate.”

When Google’s Eric Schmidt tells Business Week that good innovation is cultural—“You have to have the culture, and you have to get it right”—part of what he’s saying is: If your company has a near-monopoly in the online search business, and you can virtually mint cash at will, you can get people to innovate because it’s no longer a threatening activity—the company will survive it, and nobody will starve.

In contrast, companies reliant on a single, tenuous revenue source in a very competitive environment may well feel, like the colonial American farmer, that technology is just too important to tamper with.

The other point worth emphasizing is that the frontier alone clearly did not foster innovation. Something else happened to Americans, something more profound than their westward push, to convince them that innovation could improve their lives and not leave them empty-bellied. (But that’s a topic for another day.)

I’m not arguing that Yankee ingenuity and the frontiersman and the cowboy didn’t exist. I’m just suggesting that choosing the history that makes us feel good (and the frontier always makes Americans feel good), puffing it into a myth, and then relying on it to explain our twenty-first century business activities is a good way to get cut off at the pass, Partner.

Interestingly enough, perhaps the greatest technology innovation by Americans in the first fifty years from our founding was the American axe. Colonists took the short-handled, thick-wedged, narrow-bite European axe, with its handle set too far back from the cutting edge, and slowly transformed it.

By the nineteenth century, an English manufacturer summarized 150 years of innovation when he said that the American axe was “the most mechanically and best-constructed little instrument I know; the art being, that a man can fell three trees to one, compared with those which are ordinarily made in England.” The long, curved, springy handle set nearer to the center of the head was, by then, often custom made to fit the owner, and may have even come with a lesson in technique. (Today we would call this a “system sell.”)

Three trees felled in the time in took for one was a pretty good metric to post on the barn door.

Nobody knows the process by which this innovation occurred, but it’s safe to say we know why. Faced with the curse of having too much timber, and desperate to secure a dependable source of food, colonial North Americans would find the axe to be the single item of technology most likely to create useable farmland. And that meant more planting—and a greater chance for a sustainable food supply.

A better axe meant better eating. And that, not the frontier, was the impulse that drove early innovation in America.