“Nothing endures but change.” ~ Heraclitus
Change is hard. But it is also inevitable. Death is nature’s change agent. And just as people die, so do paradigms and businesses. And though it is hard on those who must live through the change, the end result for future generations is a world better off than what existed beforehand.
However, I also believe that change is also like time, in that it flows in but one direction. Entropy is the term used to describe the change we see in the Universe, traditionally defined as the movement from order to chaos. When it comes to society I prefer to define entropy as the movement from mass enslavement to individual freedom.
We currently are living in amazingly fluid times, an era where significant change can be measured in hours instead of decades thanks to exponential growth. An as any good engineer knows, making something immovable also makes it brittle. You have to account for dynamic forces in life just as we do in design. It is akin to flipping a canoe in rapids, you are always taught not to fight the flow, rather oriented yourself with your feet downstream and go with the flow. Any industry or company that has not learned this yet is setting themselves up to break under stress. Change is only going to happen faster, and instead of fighting it, those companies that survive will be the ones that go with the flow. Those that try to go against the gradient or stop change altogether are the ones that will be left to the history books.
I like to juxtapose two industries that are fighting to deal with a world where change is happening almost daily for them. The software industry and “old energy” which I defined as any energy source that does not come from renewable sources. Software giants are trying to reverse the flow of change, and “old energy” is trying to prevent change altogether. Both are not finding much success. Let’s begin with the software industry. Ever since software became consumer grade products sold in stores, you could aways count on people upgrading to new versions of software every few years, Thanks to a cat and mouse game between hardware and software, people were always excited about new feature sets. Microsoft Windows and Office is a perfect example. But it got to a point where good enough was, well, good enough. And sure enough we have seen a plateau in buying new versions of software. Many people are very happy with their circa 2001 Windows XP. This is troubling for software companies because their business relies on people buying a new version of software every few years. And that’s the rub, people pay a one time, up front fee and have license to that software forever. And when there were new bells and whistles having every few years, convincing people to upgrade wasn’t a challenge But now we live in a world of good enough computer hardware and software for the vast majority of people. So what does software giants do? They are trying to change to an annual subscription plan to their software. Problem is people don’t want to pay a fee every year for something they are used to pay nothing for or at the very least, one time. The Internet is helping some of them to make this a reality. Office 365, a Microsoft web service where you will be able to access Office in the cloud is coming this Fall. Of course, having to connect via Microsoft servers makes it easy to enforce a subscription model. The problem is most people don’t and won’t use it because they haven’t in the past. Again, the flow of change goes in but one direction. Trying to charge people an annual subscription goes against that gradient. The other fact about software is that there is very little cost in ways of startup and even operations at this point with services like Amazon’s AWS for cheap, reliable hosting. This very low entry barrier means that a small company can rapidly develop and deploy similar services for a fraction of the price the big guys charge. That’s why Facebook, despite the occasional spam message that is circulated on the social media juggernaut, will never charge consumers directly. Advertisement and user metrics is where they make their money, and frankly always will so long as we remain a capitalist based culture.
Now compare this two the old energy industry. People are used to going to the gas station and filling up the car. Oil companies are used to have a steady flow of repeat customers filling up their cars. But the direction of change is toward plug-in electric vehicles that you charge at home. And your home won’t be getting electrons flowing to it that were generated by oil burning power plants, but rather from the wind, sun, tidal forces, and geothermal sources. And this is what has oil scared. They are used to having a steady repeat customer base. But in a few short years people won’ have to go down to the gas station to fill up. You’ll never hear anyone say got to go down to the wind station and fill’er up. This is why there is such a a large lobbying effort against renewable energy. As an engineer I laugh at the excuses, it’s not reliable – what happens when the won’t isn’t blowing or the sun ain’t shining. Upfront costs are too expensive. But the reality is these are simple matters to overcome, and we are already succeeding. Massive strides have been made in battery technology and the future is exponentially better batteries. As for subsidies I again laugh because every energy technology has been heavily subsidized and most old energy is still heavily subsidized! But here’s the thing, eventually things that make life better, faster, cheaper eventually succeed. Think of the jobs that used to exist that simply don’t anymore. Let’s take a specific example, men used to fill street lamps, electricity made those jobs obsolete but we replaced them with electricians. In the end, we all were better off however. New skills were learned and people adjusted. In short, if jobs don’t become obsolete and replace with ones that require vastly new skill sets, frankly we’re not advancing as a species anymore.
Change is hard. But is also inevitable. We can fight it back temporarily, but human history has shown us that it is impossible to counteract meaningful and beneficial change in the long run. And frankly, rather than fighting it, we should be embracing it. Because to be frank, I much prefer an air conditioned automobile to a horse and buggy any old day.