There is a rule in conformist societies (and companies) that implicitly limits their evolution: the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. This rule almost single-handedly leads to stagnation.
Why Hammer It Down?
When a civilization is structured, the nature of specialization helps to build an intricate machine of the society, where individuals must do their specific part to keep society going.
And when various winnowing forces such as feudal warfare, disease, or sequestering on an island keep a society's population constant, or force it to grapple with a shrinking base, the structure of society must be tested and tempered. The machine that society has become must operate in lockstep to survive. The pressure on an individual to carry on his parents' trade and role models becomes very strong indeed. An individual with new thoughts, swerving from traditional roles and creating disruption, cannot be tolerated. And such rules are born.
Culture thus evolves to accommodate and sustain this pressure on the individual.
However, this doesn't happen quite as easily when a civilization's population is sufficiently large during its structure-formation stages. When services can be performed by a small fraction of the population base, there is actually pressure to move away or to do something different. Progress is rewarded, not squelched.
For the same reasons, competition also leads to progress.
On an island there is practically nowhere to go, since the barrier to moving away is essentially life in exile. But consider for a minute the case study of San Francisco, where the population has held nearly constant since the 1950s. There it is possible to move away but sweeping changes are still difficult to accomplish. Yet culture continues to evolve. Mass transit was developed. Even urban renovation continues.
Cultural forces can also promote or prevent stagnation. San Francisco's culture has changed over the last few decades significantly, and this has prevented stagnation. Pockets of culture remain and provide alternatives to what could have been a regimented, conformist society. Particularly after the 1906 earthquake and two world wars acted as winnowing forces.
Culture and Its Influence
Culture can also be a force that leads to societal stagnation because culture provides us with laws, through morality, and peer pressure, and thus imposes its will on individual behavior. When culture is too regimented and strict, this can lead to suppression of new ideas. In the middle ages, Copernicus' views of a solar-centric astronomical neighborhood were suppressed in favor of an established view. Even Galileo, whose views were provable in ten minutes with common everyday objects, had his views suppressed.
Culture can come from religion, this is true. But it can also be influenced by war and other external forces. After a war, for instance, a local culture's survival can be threatened and so the pressure of sticking around to keep the culture alive can become paramount.
The conformist society also promotes a rigid class structure with despotic rulers. The fear of being hammered down is constantly reinforced by this.
So, what does a structured, conformist society do when it is presented with external forces that threaten to overcome it?
But it does so by examining the advantages of its external threat and duplicating them. In this process the society applies its machine-like efficiency to survival. The society is already efficiently shaped for the purpose of retooling and adapting. Feudal warfare and the constant advances of weapon-making have shaped the society to this task.
What a society must never do is to kill off its talent, and thus its greatest advantage. It is this capability that keeps it alive during times of adversity. It is the talent that keeps a society mobile and adaptable.
But there are inherent adversarial forces that even the talented cannot surmount: disruptive forces.
Technology can provide disruption like no other force.
I have talked about disruptive technology before and its effects on brick-and-mortar, the dissemination of information, the replacement of old gadgets by new ones (cameras, televisions, games, and music media).
I have also talked about the disruption of fossil fuels and their eventual replacement by battery energy storage.
Right now there is a disruption in mobile technologies that is challenging the old guard of desktop systems. This is a serious problem for the old guard. Either they must embrace the change or they must use disinformation to fight it. And the second option only really postpones their inevitable death. Adapt or die. Never was this more at issue than at Microsoft.
Their core talents were in the desktop Wintel paradigm, which is quickly fading. Megalithic applications like Office and Word are quickly being replaced by the lighter mobile applications, which can be sold over the air. The advantages of an adaptable, mobile enterprise are obvious.
Now Microsoft is being criticized for implementing two different interfaces in Windows 8, provoking some usability researchers to declare that users should just wait for Windows 9.
As for the advantages of the mobile enterprise, consider for a moment the Apple store and the Microsoft store.
Here's a YouTube video contrasting the traffic of the two stores on Black Friday, the massive shopping day after the American holiday, Thanksgiving.
Microsoft copied the spartan wood tables and lighter ambience of the Apple store, yet their inability to embrace mobile point-of-sale systems seems to be costing them.
At Apple stores, the salespeople help you one-on-one, and use an iPhone with an integrated credit-card reader to complete your transaction. You even sign for the credit card transaction on the iPhone. The first time I visited an Apple store, I got the sense that it was the future of the in-store buying experience.
Let's contrast that with the Microsoft store experience. A friend of mine went to a Microsoft store to buy a Surface tablet. He was directed to a single place where the sales took place (sounds a bit like a cash register doesn't it?). The point-of-sale system crashed, complicating the transaction significantly.
While Microsoft stores might start using iPhones with integrated credit card readers, it seems improbable that a Microsoft employee would actually suggest that. Perhaps there is a Windows 8 Phone alternative? Well, if so, why aren't they using it?
My point is this: Microsoft has almost 100,000 employees. They should have some fraction of those employees building apps for their Windows 8 Phone ecosystem. They can't afford to catch up by attracting developers at this point! That would take precious time. They should already have such a point-of-sale system in their bag of tricks. Don't these guys think ahead?
My suspicion is that somebody probably wanted to do just that, but he got hammered down.
New ideas and new concepts replace old ones. Many of the trends that shaped the progress on the desktop simply do not work in the mobile computing space. Even Moore's law seems outdated, as I mention in one of my more recent posts Keep Adding Cores? It's clear that computers are simply built differently as a result of this disruption. When you consider that batteries are the power source, then power management becomes central. Efficient and targeted computation becomes highly desirable, rather than general processor computing.
What Disruption Comes From
Disruption comes from people.
People with new ideas.
New ideas whose value can easily be demonstrated to a large number of people.
If everybody sees the value then they want it.
When everybody gets it, this results in significant change.
Change in how people spend their time. Change in what people buy. Change in how people think.
So disruption comes from that nail that didn't get hammered down: an individual with radical new ideas and a conviction that his or her ideas can succeed like nothing else.