Socially Horrifying

November 15th, 2010

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Thomas Edison was a great inventor but a poor innovator.

It’s a distinction with a difference. Inventors are builders. Innovators are remodelers. The dissimilarity has significant implications for innovation. It’s the reason why Edison the inventor saw innovation as socially horrifying.

Thomas Edison is one of America’s great inventors. Invention, by definition, is the sum of ideas plus items. Edison held patents for 1,093 inventions, including the stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, recorded music, and the electric lamp. These inventions then became conventions when wedded to institutions. In the case of the electric lamp, Edison patented a system for electrical distribution based on direct current (DC) and founded the Edison Illuminating Company.

Direct current however had a problem. The power plants could only deliver electricity to customers within about one and a half miles of the generating station. DC would have required tens of thousands of power plants and heavy transmission lines. So Edison hired Nikola Tesla to innovate, to improve the system, promising him 50,000 dollars. Tesla did improve the dynamos but Edison never paid him. He told Tesla he was joking, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.”1

Edison however understood Tesla’s innovation, called alternating current (AC), was easier to transmit, to convert to different voltages, and more economical than DC. He was horrified to later learn that railway air brake inventor George Westinghouse had bought Tesla’s technologies. Edison the inventor became Edison the obstructionist. He launched a smear campaign against alternating current, hiring a film crew to make movies of animals being electrocuted with high voltage AC, including Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant. Acting on Edison’s directives, the crew was to demonstrate to the press that AC was more dangerous than Edison’s system of DC. Edison lost the battle, but his behavior raises a question: why was he horrified by Tesla’s innovation?

The answer has to do with how innovation works. Invention is intermittent. Innovation, on the other hand, is incessant, destroying an existing institution while “incessantly creating a new one,” wrote economist Joseph Schumpeter.2 Tesla’s innovation stirred what Schumpeter called the “gales of creative destruction.” The howling winds horrified Edison because Westinghouse’s new institution was toppling his old institution.

That’s the nature of renewal, which comes from the Latin innovatus, or “innovation.” The European Reform movement recognized renewal is always ongoing. The motto was: semper reformanda or always reforming. The Bible says renewal requires disruption (a seed must die in order to bear fruit). Always renewing requires always disrupting. In the Bible, prophets played the disruptive part. They were safeguards against those resisting renewal and similar to what Ernest Hemingway said made for a first-rate writer: “a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”3 Prophets are crap detectors, keeping people from becoming “excessively righteous” and ruining themselves by resisting innovation (Eccl. 7:16). Without prophets, innovation becomes socially horrifying—a reality Vivek Ranadivé discovered when he tried to be innovative on the basketball court.

Ranadivé is from Mumbai and grew up playing cricket and soccer where the teams play the entire field. When Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he couldn’t understand why American teams score and then immediately retreat to their own end of the court. Malcolm Gladwell writes that Ranadivé decided to innovate. He used a full-court press every minute of every game.4 This proved successful as his team upset more highly ranked opponents, all within the rules. Other teams had a more conventional take on the game—it is not supposed to be pressed full-court full-time. Gladwell says the other teams viewed Ranadivé’s innovation as “socially horrifying.”

This might explain why LeBron bungled his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer. Buzz Bissinger is a friend of LeBron who co-wrote James’ autobiography, Shooting Stars. Before James became a “brand,” he had a crap detector named Maverick Carter. Bissinger said Maverick Carter is long gone. Success stigmatizes naysayers. In an interview with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, Bissinger said, “You need the one s___ detector guy. You need older, wiser men who have the guts, to say, ‘You made a bad decision.’”

Viewing innovation as socially horrifying might also explain why the Western church seems to be a “not-for-prophet” institution. Take churches rooted in the Reform movement. We admire their theology and ecclesiology but their take on human nature is drawn chiefly from the Enlightenment. One example is Hegelian Idealism, the assumption that ideas have legs in and of themselves. This runs contra to scripture (and Edison’s life). Ideas only have legs when wedded to items and made operational in institutions, such as ESPN. It’s hard to see how worldview and apologetics training make a difference in ESPN. Or take churches rooted in the “two-chapter” gospel. We laud their zeal and desire to fulfill the Great Commission but we don’t see any meaningful connection to the Cultural Mandate. Culture is simply something they do to have a “platform” for sharing the gospel. This runs contra to the scriptures, where making culture is the human job description, essential to loving our neighbors.

It’s hard to hear any contrarian calls of prophets in either faith tradition. It’s more the case that upending Enlightenment assumptions or a “two-chapter” gospel is seen as socially horrifying. Reality however has a way of catching up to institutions that resist innovation. Edison eventually conceded he was wrong. But it took over 60 years to replace his institution. Parts of Boston along Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue still used Edison’s DC as late as the 1960s. There were cases of Boston University students repeatedly burning out their small appliances (typically hair dryers and phonographs) after ignoring warnings about Edison’s DC electricity supply.

Innovators recognize that all innovation requires some destruction. We see it today as Tesla is returning to the headlines. The Tesla electric car is part of the green movement, which is likely to destroy some of the gasoline-powered auto industry. The jury is out as to what will become of Tesla, but the point is, it’s easy to invent things and create institutions. It is much more difficult to disrupt and innovate existing institutions. That’s why Edison was a great inventor but Nikola Tesla was the real innovator.

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1 Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2001), pp. 56-57.
2 Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York, NY: Harper, 1975) [orig. pub. 1942], pp. 82-85.
3 As cited in Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York:, NY Delacorte, 1969), p.3.
4 Malcolm Gladwell, “How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break the Rules,” The New Yorker, May 11, 2009, pp. 40-59.

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16 Responses to “Socially Horrifying”

  1. Mark Elson says:

    “Ideas only have legs when wedded to items and made operational in institutions, such as ESPN. It’s hard to see how worldview and apologetics training make a difference in ESPN.”

    Mike, logically this proposition proves the importance of worldview and apologetic training rather than disprove … worldview and apologetics training and discussion are about the fine-tuning of ideas, therefore giving way to “great” legs (without trying to sound inappropriate) not “just the next” innovative invention. Your proposition suggests, if I take away the ideas I take away the legs, I would agree. Throwing worldview and apologetic training under the bus seems like it would stunt the innovation from having sufficient ideas. Since ESPN has a worldview (a way they see reality, thereby walk accordingly) it seems A Priori that their innovations leading to the next invention would be more socially constructive.

    I was with you until this proposition, it makes it self-refuting does it not? To make a proposition that worldview training has no difference toward ESPN success, is your worldview. You are using your worldview to deny the significance of worldview training. Denying worldview significance through the use of your worldview is not only self-refuting but unfortunately arrogant. It says you are not allowed to have a worldview unless it is my worldview. I am certain that this was a logical slip… I AM IN NO WAY implying that you meant to be arrogant or purposefully promote a fallacy.

    According to your article innovation is the “destruction of, before the bettering of”… destruction of what? It would seem that primarily it is the destruction of certain worldview ideas and the release of better ideas that need to take legs and walk.

  2. How do you deal with disruptive influences | Faculty Commons- Mark and Brenda Brown says:

    […] http://www.doggieheadtilt.com/socially-horrifying/ Categorized under: Just Thinking. Tagged with: no tags. […]

  3. Tim says:

    “Without prophets, innovation becomes socially horrifying—a reality” I didn’t quite understand this statement Mike. Can you explain?

    “Western church seems to be a “not-for-prophet” institution.” So true.

    I am not quite sure of the connection between innovation vs. invention and apologetics/worldview training. Help me out here.

  4. Brody Bond says:

    @Mark – what? I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your comment at all.

    Brody

  5. Mike Metzger says:

    Hi Mark:

    I too am experiencing some difficulty in parsing your paragraphs – but it’s likely more the case of me being a bit dense at times. I would refer you to “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer. His point is deceptively simple: we are feeling beings far more than rational, thinking beings. Then I’d suggest James K.A. Smith stunningly fine new book, “Desiring the Kingdom.” His point is that we “feel” our way through life more than think our way through it. All this to say, I did not mean to throw worldview training under the bus. I simply sought to push it further back in the bus. We’ve given worldview training a front row seat by misunderstanding human nature. Most apologetics is taught as a rational enterprise, unwittingly adopting an Enlightenment understanding of human nature that is being seriously challenged by many Christians as well as those in neuroscience. Thus, from my limited experience, worldview training occurs mostly in Christian cul-de-sacs and has yet to make much of a dent in, say, ESPN or Bravo Channel.

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    Hi Mark & Brenda:

    I am not quite clear on your question. Would you elaborate?

  7. Dan says:

    Mr. Metzger
    I have not read the books you mention but I was intrigued by your answer. Isn’t it from the fact we are emotional / feeling beings that a world view based on logic and rational is so important? Often strong emotional attachment to a subject leads down a road of relativism, justification or outright denial. It sounds to me like the “crap detector” is the voice of logic overriding the emotions that sometimes turn out to be nothing more than “crap”.

    “Enlightenment understanding of human nature that is being seriously challenged by many Christians as well as those in neuroscience.”

    Can you give me some references that speak to this?

    Thanks.

  8. Mark Elson says:

    I apologize for the difficulty of the logic, allow me to try express again without writing an article myself and break “blog comment etiquette”

    It seems as though I am more in favor of the rationalist, given to reason as the best source of dependable knowledge – and Mike, without putting words in your mouth or pinning a label to your chest, reside more in the camp of an empiricist, acknowledging feeling and experience as the best source of dependable knowledge. Historically placed, this is battle from the conception of Modern Philosophy beginning with Descarte. Hence our ontological difference of “human nature”.

    Dallas Willard in a lecture at UCLA for the Veritas Forum, titled – “The Nature and Necessity of Worldviews” defined worldview like this:

    “Worldview consists of your assumptions about the realities and values that govern you and the world in which you live. “

    “Your worldview is a biological reality – that is to say it is built right in”

    Willard, as with many Christian philosophers believe that worldview is still the primary concern of changing our world and its society / sociology. If our worldview is a biological reality (built into our infrastructure) then it would seem to need to take a front seat on the bus.

    Let me try my analytical process to logically confirm Willard. Mike you said “worldviews should be pushed further back in the bus”, but there is the logical conundrum. You are using your worldview (“your assumptions about reality”) as a primary reason why to demote the importance of worldviews having a primary position. It is self-refuting. Your whole article is a rational argument denying the ability of a rational argument.

    As for Jonah Lehrer: I have not read his book “How we Decide”; I did before writing this, watch his interviews about his book, and read articles on his website. It seems clear that his worldview is that of a Materialist (the only thing that exists is material). Humans are constructed that it is the physical / human part of us that produce thought, feeling, intuition etc. I think as Christians we should strongly reject this worldview.

    There is so much here I want to say but this is your blog, I do apologize for the length!

  9. Mike Metzger says:

    Mark:

    No need to apologize. I like your spirit! And don’t worry about etiquette… I trust you. I can also see where I have been unclear. I would reframe my bus statement as “we need to move experiential learning to the front seat.” I’m not putting you in the camp of rationalists, but it seems to me that most of the worldview folks are Enlightenment rationalists, assuming you can reason people out of their worldviews. I like Jonathan Swift: you can’t reason a man out of something he never reasoned his way into. Does that help? I completely agree that worldviews are unconscious assumptions, taken-for-granted reality, and the air we breathe. I’ve just seen far more success embedding individuals and organizations in experiences that prove enlightening and enhance self-awareness. It’s what Outward Bound does so well. It’s what Augustine said so well: the soul delights in particular in what it learns indirectly.

  10. Mike Metzger says:

    Mark:

    No need to apologize. I like your spirit! And don’t worry about etiquette… I trust you. I can also see where I have been unclear. I would reframe my bus statement as “we need to move experiential learning to the front seat.” I’m not putting you in the camp of rationalists, but it seems to me that most of the worldview folks are Enlightenment rationalists, assuming you can reason people out of their worldviews. I like Jonathan Swift: you can’t reason a man out of something he never reasoned his way into. Does that help? I completely agree that worldviews are unconscious assumptions, taken-for-granted reality, and the air we breathe. I’ve just seen far more success embedding individuals and organizations in experiences that prove enlightening and enhance self-awareness. It’s what Outward Bound does so well. It’s what Augustine said so well: the soul delights in particular in what it learns indirectly.

    btw, I just noticed your comment on my entire article being a rational argument. In one sense, of course… columns like this aren’t the same as hiking together. But I get you point. I’m not opposed to being rational but to rationalism. Big difference.

  11. Mike Metzger says:

    Hi Dan:

    Yes, there are many authors who would say that our feelings are not based our rational capacity, including, who said we believe (do) in order that we might understand (rational). This is not a rejection of reason but a reframing of its role. Augustine believed faith and reason are all of one fabric. Faith led to reason, but reason was indispensable to faith: “Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.”

    As for other authors, try Lesslie Newbigin (Proper Confidence), James K.A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom), or NT Wright. If you like these writers, Amazon will link you to more!

  12. Mike Metzger says:

    Dan: it pays to proofread. Augustine was omitted in my first quote – I believe in order to understand. Second, Joshua Lehrer’s book “How We Decide” will upend your assumptions about the place of the rational in decision-making. btw, the responder who noted Lehrer is a materialist… so what? That’s a lot like saying since LeBron James doesn’t seem to say a great deal about Jesus, he doesn’t know much about basketball. You don’t have to be a follower of Christ to know something about reality. Lehrer knows a great deal about reality, even if he’s a materialist.

  13. Brent says:

    Bill Simmons shoutout! Thanks for using the LeBron crap detector example. I think it’s particularly relevant.

  14. Mark Elson says:

    “btw, the responder who noted Lehrer is a materialist… so what? That’s a lot like saying since LeBron James doesn’t seem to say a great deal about Jesus, he doesn’t know much about basketball. You don’t have to be a follower of Christ to know something about reality. Lehrer knows a great deal about reality, even if he’s a materialist.”

    That responder was me wouldn’t you know… Mike with all due respect, this “logic statement” presupposes that LeBron believes in Jesus, that is why it doesn’t apply – let me explain.

    As a materialist Lehrer’s science doesn’t include metaphysics. Thinking, feeling, ideas, will, are not real independent properties outside the brain, but are neural reactions or “gut feels” retrieved from the five senses. Therefore his worldview does not include thought, ideas, a will, or emotional as independent properties. We are our brain, although he gives lips service to the word “reason”, they are not part of the mind. So how can one speak authoritatively on something he doesn’t believe exists but is rather a by-product of the physical (brain). Not that he just has little knowledge of, but that to Lehrer, thought and its companions are not real existing independent properties outside of human beings.

    My prior comment was not so loose as to include the fallacy of over-generalization but was to say his worldview does not consider certain reality’s that the Christian Worldview does. So what?… the Christian worldview corresponds to the way reality is – why rely on a lesser worldview? Now Lehrer I’m sure, has immaculate work and research about the brain, but his worldview postulation to that of the human nature is weak. This only amplifies the importance of worldview training, it seems Lehrer’s worldview (his perspective of reality) is “limited”, doesn’t cover all parts of reality. When one doesn’t include all of reality, authoritative speaking is a non-sequitur.

  15. Lavonne Trevino says:

    Mr. Metzger I have not read the books you mention but I was intrigued by your answer. Isn’t it from the fact we are emotional / feeling beings that a world view based on logic and rational is so important? Often strong emotional attachment to a subject leads down a road of relativism, justification or outright denial. It sounds to me like the “crap detector” is the voice of logic overriding the emotions that sometimes turn out to be nothing more than “crap”. “Enlightenment understanding of human nature that is being seriously challenged by many Christians as well as those in neuroscience.” Can you give me some references that speak to this? Thanks.

  16. Mike Metzger says:

    Hi Lavonne:

    I’d recommend beginning with Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence.” If you like it, let me know – and I’ll recommend more!

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