Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Loss is a part of Change

Caterpillars are beautiful too.  Mourn their loss.
Public Domain image

Innovation is fundamentally about change.  As innovators, we often look at the positive aspects about how change can make our lives and the lives of those we love, better.  But often, we run into people who react negatively, almost violently so, to the innovation that we value so dearly.  It is important to approach this with empathy, for these people are sensitive to a fundamental truth.  All change, no matter how positive in the grand scheme of things, involves such loss.  Today, we’ll talk about how to accept and respect this real sense of loss.

Loss is a fundamental part of change, and a fundamental part of life.  Loss is something that must be recognized, valued, and then accepted.  Refusing to recognize and accept someone’s loss can create a strong backlash against the change, no matter the positive consequences.  Let’s explore a few key technologies throughout history that, though overwhelmingly positive in our society, created real loss at the time of its arrival:

Loss:  The art of painting.   
When photography was introduced, prominent figures proclaimed it to be “art’s most mortal enemy”.  After all, we were replacing the skill of human portrait artists with cold, unfeeling technology.  A German newspaper wrote “God has created man in his image and no human machine can capture the image of God.”
After some upheaval, art didn’t die, it flourished.  The removal of realism as painting’s goal spawned new creativity.  It gave us impressionism and surrealism, not to mention artistic photography.  Rather than just replacing artists, photography freed us to further explore artistic expression.

The Steam Engine:
Loss:  Labor jobs and the moral fiber of hard work
Remember the folk tale of John Henry? Disney recently made a short based on this.  This was one of the earliest man vs machine stories.  The evil steam drill was taking jobs away from hard working freed slaves.  John Henry fought to show that humans could compete.  
Lots of jobs were lost to the steam engine, but productivity increased, and new, higher skilled labor was created from the new steam-based industries.  This was the creation the first industrial revolution.  Though there were initially some horrible working conditions in the transition, it ultimately resulted in the much higher standard of living of the modern age.

Written Language:
Loss: Oral traditions
Yes, even written language was once considered evil.  Many cultures based their history on oral traditions passed on from generation to generation through songs.  With the creation of writing there was fear that men’s minds would grow weak from not having to remember things (sound familiar?  Similar arguments have been made about the internet).  The art of giving speeches and debate might be lost.  Oral traditions are also fluid, being adapted each generation, allowing for changes over time.  Writing something down seemed so fixed by comparison.  
Written language turned out to be one of the most powerful tools humankind has ever invented.  We still keep things in our minds but are able to hold much more complex concepts and thoughts in our heads now that we have the ability to store some of it on paper.

Here are some of the innovations coming down the line.  As innovators and inventors, we must be attuned to the real losses that will and must occur when the change brought on by these new technologies.  Doing so will help us navigate the coming changes and smooth out the transition:

Self Driving Cars
Loss: Jobs as drivers, the thrill of motorsports
Recovery: Less monotonous jobs, more challenging and extreme motorsports

Artificial Intelligence
Loss: White collar jobs, like accounting
Recovery: Freed from monotonous tasks, humans may move towards more creativity and social oriented businesses

Virtual Reality
Loss: Tourism, human connection, the physical world
Recovery:  Lower carbon footprint through reduced travel.  Tourism focuses on meeting people and cultural experiences (rather than photo taking).  Virtual reality allows for stronger human connections across the world.