Murder, Starvation, Catastrophe

November 30, 2009

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself reading more and more history. I am told that the way to appreciate history is not to “play it in reverse” – that is don’t look at history from today’s perspective where you already know what happened.  You have to “play it forward” – what was it like to live in that place and time and to have to make the big decisions of the day?  It occurred to me several years ago that we think of historical trends as big things.  Nations moving against nations.  The rise and fall of societies.  Then I realized:  Many of the big events took place in  familiar terrain  – collections of people organized around a more or less well defined set of goals and working toward a common purpose. And if you go back in history far enough – say 1,000 years or so — the numbers are also pretty familiar,  usually less than a million people.  In fact, nations and societies with 10,000 to 200,000 people were the norm.  In other words, they were in many ways like the modern business enterprise.

That’s worth saying again:  except for the details of time and place, there is really not a whole lot of difference between  modern enterprises and  societies of antiquity. The fate of large groups of people is determined as much by human aspirations and failings, reactions to threats, wise use of resources, and  the emergence of leaders as by anything else.

So with that as a backdrop I want to ask a couple of questions that seem to be completely unrelated to each other.

Question 1:  Why didn’t the 1940’s Western Electric  videophone make it?

Sure, the structure of the industry mattered, but it wasn’t lack of innovation that doomed the videophone.  After all. Video conferencing is ubiquitous today. So why didn’t that technology make it when today, for a hundred dollars,  you can stream high quality video to another hundred dollar device?  The culture of innovation is fundamentally different today than it was when the videophone was developed by Bell Labs in the 1940’s.  In fact the species of innovator that Bell Labs represents is today very nearly extinct.

My Second Question is:  What was the person who chopped down the last tree on Easter Island thinking about while he was doing it?

In truth, I can’t claim credit for the question. It was posed by Jared Diamond in Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, an historical and geographical tour-de-force that poses a framework for looking at decisions that societies make on their way to success or failure.  Those decisions invariably relate to:

  1. environmental damage
  2. climate change
  3. hostile neighbors
  4. friendly trade partners, and
  5. cultural response

Let’s take the similarities between ancient societies and  modern enterprises seriously – they involve similar numbers of people, they define their own value systems.  The historically successful route for both was a kind of vertical integration that made it reasonable to work and innovate in relative isolation. The way that 21st century companies innovate in the face of environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbors is very important in their long-term prospects for survival.  On the other hand, how they treat their friendly trading partners determines how much of the work for survival has to be carried on their shoulders alone.  And what about cultural barriers?  The whole point of WWC is to learn from companies that innovate around the right values but are culturally unable to execute effectively.  Diamond’s language is anthropology, not business – but we’ll see in upcoming posts that the difference between success and failure is often rooted in the same factors that led to  murder, starvation and catastrophe in the ancient world — and ultimately to the collapse of societies.

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3 Responses to “Murder, Starvation, Catastrophe”

  1. Mike Miller Says:

    Interesting direction! Looking forward to seeing you apply Diamond’s societal success criteria to modern enterprises! I think though that Diamond was a little too broad, too reductivist in places and that it’s too much of a generalization to say that all ancient cultures – or just the array of ones covered in Collapse – were vertically integrated affairs. I think it’s more accurate to say that since the emergence of monarchism and the modern nation state (circa 1500 in the West) most succesful enterprises, social/political/business/military, have been vertically integrated. Chandler dealt with the German, American, and Brit variants of vertical modern Corp culture in Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism, and Huntington did the same for the Japanese, German and American modern military cultures in The Soldier and the State. With the world getting flatter, and sources of power and knowledge becoming more diffuse, maybe we’ll see a return to a more feudal way of doing business, where guild type orgs (independent professional orgs, journeyman consultants, etc) help to cross fertilize ideas and innovation to a degree that wasn’t possible under the old 20th century, vertically integrated model where the state and the Corp had a monopoly on resources. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, and see more cases of how individuals overcame their cultural constraints. Another small quibble with Diamond – I wish he’d give a little more credit to individual actors! Anyway, great post – looking forward to where
    this goes!

    • richde Says:

      All good points. The re-emergence of guilds an underlying theme of both my Edupunk posts and “Regional Advantage.” I hadn’t thought to frame it that way, so thanks for the pointer. The “Collapse” metaphor breaks down because the long-term consequences of enterprise collapse tend to be confined — more like island societies than, say, Mayans. The main lessons lie in cultural dimensions which I will argue points toward leadership and, in the case of companies, individual actors.


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