Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Evolution or Revolution 2

@ceciiil asserts a difference between @oscarberg and @bduperrin in his post E2.0 Evangelists : the Revolutionaries and the Evolutionaries (March 24, 2010).

I'm not convinced by this distinction. Cecil says that revolutionaries believe in disruption and evolutionaries believe in incremental change. But these beliefs are not mutually exclusive. In a simple linear world perhaps, incremental change is unlikely to be disruptive. But in a complex dynamic world, incremental change can often trigger disruptive change. (There is a branch of mathematics called Catastrophe Theory, dedicated to the study of such non-linear phenomena. And Hegelians define dialectics as the transformation of quantity into quality - see for example Anti-Dühring by Frederick Engels.)

So I have long argued that the difference between evolution and revolution is largely a difference of perspective. Not either/or but both/and.

The following is an extract from Chapter 5 of my book on the Component-Based Business (Springer 2001).

A sudden change is often described as a revolution. A progressive change over time is often described as an evolution.

Even in biology, the distinction between sudden change and slow change is problematic. If you had been sitting on the seashore many millions of years ago, you might have seen the first sea creatures crawl onto land, and this might seem a sudden and dramatic event, from a human perspective. However, a squid might see this event as relatively unimportant, merely as one of many tentative explorations by a few creatures at the margins of the oceans, or as a fairly routine extension to previous innovations within a large and diverse community of sea creatures.

Many present-day commentators characterize the emergence of computing, or the Internet, or E-Business, as revolutionary. From one perspective, these appear to be previously unseen phenomena, emerging suddenly into public awareness from the obscurity of some other domain. From another perspective, the same phenomena appear to be a natural consequence of a large number of independently planned and executed moves by a large number of engineers, businessmen and others, whose origins can be traced back to innovations made years ago, decades ago, perhaps even centuries ago.

Thus the same phenomenon can be described as revolutionary AND evolutionary at the same time, depending on where you’re standing, and the amount of history you’re prepared to absorb.

If I describe a change as revolutionary, I’m inviting you to concentrate your attention on certain aspects of the change. I want you to see it as a dramatic break with the past, with sweeping implications across a fairly wide domain.

If I describe a change as evolutionary, I’m inviting you to take a different perspective. I want you to be aware of the links between the past and the future, and the extent to which previous patterns and innovations are being adapted and reused.

Some people feel safer with evolutionary descriptions of change, while others feel happier with revolutionary descriptions. As a manager or consultant, I might feel the need to motivate some people, while reassuring others. Sometimes I want to emphasize continuity; at other times, I want to emphasize novelty. At least from a logical point of view, I’m not necessarily contradicting myself if I describe things differently for different stakeholders – although there may be ethical or practical difficulties if the descriptions diverge too greatly.

Related Posts

Evolution or Revolution (May 2006)


  1. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for referencing my article.

    Actually, what's interesting in here is the fact that when you have Oscar and Bertrand talinkg about this, soon they will end up with the same conclusion. Basically : talk as a visionaire and act as a pragmatist.

    However, their respective blog posts are still opposite.

    Thanks for the Hegelian definition of dialectics. Didn't nkow that - very useful.

    Now my question re. your book snippet : how would you rate the internet ? the iPhone ?

    Don't you have the feeling that the last 15 years have been the most fascinating in terms of technologies and communication ?

  2. Thanks Ceciiil

    I wouldn't even try to rate the internet objectively. It is a complex phenomenon that can be viewed from many different perspectives, using different lenses (technological, cybernetic, sociological, political, ethical, ...). I personally happen to feel that the internet is a greater phenomenon than the iPhone, but that's just a feeling.

    My argument is that our feelings about technology are fundamentally and systematically distorted by glamour and proximity. Of course we are often fascinated by the most-recent, and we tend to take the less-recent for granted, but that is an unreliable basis for believing that the recent is (or will turn out to be) more significant from a larger historical perspective.

    What I really find interesting (from a socio-historical perspective) is how quickly technologies can shift from "fascinating" to "taken-for-granted". Since I started work, my working life have been transformed by a range of tools, including word processing, spreadsheets, mobile phones, fax machines, email and internet. Apart from a few developers working for Microsoft or Google, is anyone nowadays fascinated by word processors or spreadsheets? If we pay attention to the social changes brought about by the Internet, and ignore the social changes brought about by the word processor, then of course we will get a distorted view of the internet's importance. If we glamorize the iPhone while regarding older mobile telephones as uninteresting, we end up making a fetish of some specific design features of a particular product.

    So even with the latest and most glamorous products, we tend to regard them in terms of what Albert Borgmann calls the Device Paradigm.