Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.*

*Jane Jacobs

I have found this Russell Davies’ photo (in relation to print business) onAdam Greenfield’s blog, and it got me to thinking (which is always a good thing). I was not quite sure in which direction I wanted to take my thoughts, and still am not, so let’s see where this post takes me.

I can start with knowledge — organizational, social, and technical. Which, said more plainly, refers to the latent and manifested knowledge that’s intrinsic to any industrial practice. Media firms do business the way theyknow how to do it, which is to say, to repeat stuff that worked in the past. Advertising agencies do the same thing.

When a new media and technological format emerges, they appropriate it to the already existing network of knowledge. Which is why the change is such a slow process (predictions of end of the world notwithstanding). But which is also why it also happens, by gradual and incremental dis-assembling of tools, ideas, practices, and information suitable for one business environment, and equally gradual and incremental re-assembling of those same tools and practices with new elements: new tools and new ideas and new ways of doing things. What comes out of it is a bricolage that’s sometimes a monster, and sometimes a beauty.

Every time I hear an extreme argument about “old” versus “new” and the doom for the old and the celebration of the new, I think how bad, unfounded, and weak those arguments are. They are a) selective (they use only examples that support the argument, and ignore others); they are b) simplistic (there must always be one single force behind the change — call it the internet, or call it consumer behavior, or call it fragmentation, or whatever else comes handy), and they are c) very easy to make because of the a) and b).

The world is, in reality, complex (a great and inexhaustible wisdom, eh). If it is complex, then forget about causality. Everything actually happens at the same time — and if we perceive something as a “big” change this is only because we didn’t pay attention to many smaller, interconnected, and c0-happening things. Big change is always an outcome of a network of lot of incremental changes. And people — by default — focus on outcomes.

And every time I hear “old” vs. “new”, I remember my favorite example of the famous inventor, Thomas Edison. What people much less frequently say in relation to this name is a “great businessman”. Why? Well, Mr. Edison notoriously invented a light bulb. What is less notorious is that, while he did spent time in his lab figuring out purely technical challenges of a light bulb, what really makes him an inventor is that he created a whole wide network of conditions within which his light bulb made sense: he built relays (or hired people to do so), meters, cables in people’s homes, electricians, laws, standards, regulations, etc. Only when this whole system (a network) was assembled together and put firmly in place, his invention — a light bulb — made sense. (In contrast, Nikola Tesla, a brilliant inventor, spent time mostly in his lab and in his lone hotel room; not a savvy businessman, that one. His inventions — or most of them — still sit in some safe to this day).

A “new” thing is in fact a network effect — of a network already in place, but more importantly, of an emerging network that this “new” thing brings to effect. Similar analysis to a light bulb can be applied to Twitter — yes, people were texting before, and yes, they were lifecasting whatever they were doing (which secured that Twitter was not such a “new” thing), but it also gave effect to an evolving system of niche broadcasting + interpersonal communication (which Twitter created by making it possible).

So now, the real question for me is not when/why innovations emerge, but when/why they succeed. Because this is when we notice them. Big change.

Originally published on September 24, 2009