Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Revolution-era pragmatists

Recently when I reviewed "The Best in Technology Writing 2010", I mentioned that Clay Shirky's piece on the radical revolution/reformation of the newspaper industry, 'Thinking the Unthinkable' was one of my favorites.

I revisited it recently, and really liked the observation made in the following passage:

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists. While those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven't been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world increasingly resembled the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans, but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

He is writing about newspapers, but the above passage could be speaking about any large incumbent (or group thereof) in any industry undergoing radical change. I've seen it at Intel and Microsoft dozens of times, and I confess to having played the role of accuser and accused at different times.


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