Levels of Change

Fundamental change is pervasive across every level of life.  In this post, I compare four levels and time scales of change including evolution (millions of years), history (thousands of years), industry (centuries), and technology (decades).  This comparison leads to a few overall observations about transformation and a few insights into how people think about fundamental change.

Central concepts in evolution are species, populations, and extinctions.  Example species, in order of appearance, include plants, insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Relatively recent are primates, which include Homo sapiens (humans), all within the mammal species.  The populations of species tend to grow unless predators weed them out.  More significant are mass extinctions, which are defined by more than 50% of all species being eliminated.

There have been five mass extinctions, the last one of which eliminated the dinosaurs.  Some scientists argue that we are on the verge of a sixth mass extinction.  Fortunately, the time scale on which mass extinctions happen is such that we need not worry about this right now.  Nevertheless, this possibility doubtlessly represents transformative fundamental change.

Central concepts in history include civilizations, empires, revolutions and conquests.  Notable civilizations and empires include Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Maya, Greece, and Rome.  All of these empires ended, often due to internal strife (revolutions) or external sources (conquests).  In some cases civilization ended.  It appears that the typical life of a civilization is one thousand years or so.  This does not mean that all the people disappear, but standards of living usually plummet.

Core ideas for industry include needs, markets, and creative destruction.  Markets emerge to meet human needs for food, housing, energy, transportation, finance, etc.  Industries change due to increased efficiencies (e.g., agriculture), technology replacement (e.g., horse-drawn streetcars), and consolidation (e.g., airplane manufacturing).  The winners of the competition perfect their offerings, which greatly benefits customers, until their offerings (e.g., buggy whips) are no longer needed.  Then industries face creative destruction, in part due to new technologies.

Key notions in technology are invention, innovation, and obsolescence.  Over millennia, humankind has invented tools, wheels, propellers, crossbows, and gunpowder; waterwheels, steam engines, and gears; aqueducts, drainage, sails, and rudders; steamboats, railroads, automobiles, and airplanes; and electricity, telephones, computers, and Internet.  These inventions, often rather slowly, became market innovations as technologies and infrastructures matured.  As they were perfected, these offerings tended to become commodities or, in many cases, obsolete.  In the process, most companies and, sometimes, whole industries were creatively destroyed by new market innovations and value propositions.

Reflection on these four levels of transformation prompts a notional life cycle of change operating on all four levels:

  1. New epochs eventually lead to consolidation and refinement or perfection
  2. Assumptions on which perfection is based are eventually no longer tenable
  3. New entities emerge to exploit new assumptions, but are bit players at first
  4. Existing entities attempt to adapt, even transform, but almost always fail
  5. New epochs emerge — go to step 1

If transformation inevitably fails, at least eventually, why try?  First of all, you cannot know a new epoch is emerging until after it happens.  There are economic and social benefits to sustaining the current epoch.  For example, capital assets cannot be quickly redeployed, unless via liquidation.  Further, the stewards of the current epoch will inevitably attempt to survive.  Overall, it seems reasonable to observe that, despite their inevitability, extinctions, revolutions, conquests, destruction and obsolescence are only addressed when their time has come.  We strive to hold them off even though we know they are inevitable because such is the only rational and productive strategy.

Leave a Reply