The evolution of product revolution

Imagine you are standing in the bakery and can only order by answering true or false, yes or no, on or off, zero or one. How would you order four cheese croissants, one loaf of bread, and three baguettes? Even better, how would you start? What would the initial question be? This boolean way of looking at reality, with only true or false statements, is called digital. The zeros and ones embody exactly that, true is one, false is zero or the other way around, who cares. The digital way of running interactions seems opposite to the way how we think. It is never 100% true or false, but it always comes in multiple shades of grey, sometimes even fifty. Computers, on the contrary, feel at home in this boolean world. Let’s have a short four-minute history of humanity to see how we ended up in this boolean reality.

From hunter to peasant
Long ago, we lived in a hunter-gatherer society, hanging around, gathering plants and hunting animals, or as Jim Morrison sang:

Happy life, day to day, no worries, be happy, sacrificing gifts to animal gods, taking hallucination mushrooms at the campfire, spraying graffiti on cave walls till the time you couldn’t find eatable plants or animals willing to donate themselves for humans' well-being anymore. Long story short: starvation was always lurking. Until the time somebody came up with the marvellous idea not to gather plants and animals, but to grow and keep them. From that moment on, food was always in reach. And voila, the agrarian society was born. This happened 10.000–8.000 years ago. Some say this was the start of all misery. It was the moment Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. Pandora’s box was opened, sickness and death escaped and together started to haunt humanity. Social classes started to appear, and we got rulers and the ones to be ruled. Anyway, as much as I like the stories of splashing doom, glittering despair and shining misery, let’s focus on the string of events that happened after the transition. By settling down, housing came. Housing meant possession, and harvesting meant planning and distribution. This resulted in bookkeeping that stimulated writing. Before we knew it, we were building temples and had stepped away from our animal religions and worshipped gods that controlled everything looking and acting like men. After all, now men ruled over nature by agriculture and not the other way around. So who would be closer to god? And maybe the most important thing, the notion of time, began to play a more prominent role. How else would you plan sowing and harvest seasons? The agrarian society took off and dominated till the end of the 18th century when the next episode in human history knocked on the door: the industrial revolution.

From peasant to office clerk
The industrial revolution started somewhere between 1760 and 1820. If you think about it, it is not that long ago on the scale of the existence of our kind. The industrial revolution embodies the transition from manual labour to machines. Instead of man-, animal or wind power, we started to use machines driven by mechanical power to manufacture goods and move around. Until that time, we had sailed the oceans, and the fastest way to go from A to B was by horse. Actually, the only thing we had mechanized was the way we killed each other. We used gunpowder to shoot bullets and to fire cannons in battle. How typically.
In agriculture, we started to use machinery to optimize and ease labour. The superfluous labour force in agriculture moved to the industry. This triggered an exodus from the countryside to the city resulting in an enormous shift in the way we lived, leading to today’s society. Factories paid wages, and wages bought consumption goods. Mechanised agriculture produced more food increasing the standard of living also due to dropping prices of luxury goods by industrial mass production. New professions regulated systems to communicate and networks for transportation. And so on, and so on till the next stop: the digital revolution. Many place some minor revolutions in between the industrial and digital one. They talk about the second, the third, and sometimes even the fourth industrial revolution. Utterly nonsense. From machine power to the digital age is just one line of optimization of machines doing the work for us. As boring day to day life may seem to be for some people, it is not a reason to see a revolution on every street corner because there is none. But is the transition from an industrial society to a digital society a revolution? Yeah, sure it is.

But before we continue, let’s first dive into the term revolution. When we think of revolution, we think of revolt, uprising, a violent clash of one group against another. Preferable the underdog against a small minority that rules by severe oppression. Against all odds, the underdog wins. Previously suppressed, they take control, a reckoning follows, and a new day is born, and everyone lives happily ever after. Not quite. The revolution devours its own children, is a popular saying. Maximilien de Robespierre, the main figure during the French revolution, the one with liberté, égalité, fraternité, was beheaded by the same guillotine as Louis XVI, the last king of France. King of the regime overthrown by Robespierre. Just a random fact: the guillotine was an innovation to make executions less painful and subject less prone to error. It put an end to an executioner missing the right spot to cut the head or hitting not hard enough so the head would come off only half making an awful mess of a cheerful public event. Trotsky was also devoured by the revolution, the Russian Revolution of 1917, he initiated. He fell into Lenin’s disgrace, escaped to Mexico, where he was assassinated with an ice pick. An event recorded in the song “No more heroes” from the Stranglers:

So revolutions are a violent and nasty thing, and talking about an industrial or digital revolution is a bit overdone. Most of the time, there are no bloody events that trigger the transition from one system to another. However, most of the time, a social class goes out of business, and a new one arises. Think of landlords, nobility, oil barons and recently tech entrepreneurs. But it is better to talk about evolution that takes place in a concise period, like one or two generations often causing social ills and accumulation of wealth within a small group. When the first shocks of change are absorbed by society, society starts to adjust and smoothen out the social ills to prevent a real revolution and establishing a new equilibrium with new rules and paradigms replacing major defects from the former one. The agrarian society solved the problem of not controlling the food supply in the hunter-gatherer society. The agrarian made it possible to increase well being and population growth. The industrial revolution solved the problem of intensive work in agriculture and also started the industrialization of handicraft. Again making the increase in population and luxury possible. In the digital society, we again see that the agricultural sector will change again radically over time. Take, for instance, printed meat or brewed milk as described in my first blog of the Innovation files. The industrial sector will need fewer human hands due to robots, optimization of demand and supply chains and let’s not forget AI. Financial markets changed dramatically. Communication is digital, so distance and, therefore, time doesn’t matter anymore—all great subjects to deep dive into. But we do that in the next blog.

Ho, I hear you think. These are the innovation files. Yes, they are. So where are they? Innovations don’t fall accidentally out of the sky, like revolutions. They travel from far, like waves. And good surfers can spot the perfect wave to ride by looking to the horizon after, of course, checking the weather and swell prediction to decide to go into the water or not.

For those who have been wondering about the boolean way of ordering at the bakery, here it is:
- sir, do you want to order?
- true
- what would you like?
- error
- would you like croissants?
- false
- would you like cheese croissants?
- true
- how many?
- error
- would you like one?
- false
- would you like two?
- true
- would you like something else?
- true

The innovation files
1. Innovation versus business optimization: from Gyro Gearloose to Elon Musk
2. Serendipity: Icarus and the four horsemen of the apocalypse
3. The evolution of product revolution
4. Digital: Boolean Rhapsody
5. Welcome to the Digital Economy
6. Whiskey, platforms and the network effect
7. The waves of innovation
8. Corporate innovation: Apple’s toilet paper and unforeseen side effects
9. Mentality, digital transformation, sustainability and innovation

As an educated historian, entrepreneur and self taught technologist I like to connect the dots of technical, social and economic developments.