By Adam Davidson
Perhaps the best place to behold Silicon Valley’s success as a platform for innovation is a 27,000-square-foot facility just down the block from Yahoo. This is the warehouse of Weird Stuff, a 21-person company that buys the office detritus that start-ups no longer want. One section of the space teems with hundreds of laptops and desktops; another is overloaded with CPUs and orphaned cubicle partitions.
Weird Stuff also acquires goods from the start-ups that succeed, when they are ready to upgrade offices and need to offload their old equipment.
For decades, entrepreneurs and digital gurus of various repute have referred to this era, in a breathlessness bordering on proselytising, as the age of innovation. But Weird Stuff is a reminder of another, unexpected truth about innovation: It is, by necessity, inextricably linked with failure. The path to any success is lined with disasters. Most of the products that do make it out of the lab fail spectacularly once they hit the market. Even successful products will ultimately fail when a better idea comes along. And those lucky innovations that are truly triumphant, the ones that transform markets and industries, create widespread failure among their competition.
An age of constant invention naturally begets one of constant failure. The life span of an innovation, in fact, has never been shorter. An African hand axe from 2,85,000 years ago, for instance, was essentially identical to those made some 2,50,000 years later. The Sumerians believed that the hoe was invented by a godlike figure named Enlil a few thousand years before Jesus, but a similar tool was being used a thousand years after his death. During the Middle Ages, amid major advances in agriculture, warfare and building technology, the failure loop closed to less than a century. During the Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about a lifetime. By the 20th century, it could be measured in decades. Today, it is best measured in years and, for some products, even less.
The closure of the failure loop has sent uncomfortable ripples through the economy. When a product or company is no longer valued in the marketplace, there are typically thousands of workers whose own market value diminishes, too. Our breakneck pace of innovation can be seen in stockmarket volatility and other boardroom metrics, but it can also be measured in unemployment cheques, in divorces and involuntary moves and in promising careers turned stagnant. Innovation is, after all, terrifying. Right now we’re going through changes that rip away the core logic of our economy. Will there be enough jobs to go around? Will they pay a living wage? Terror, however, can also be helpful. The only way to harness this new age of failure is to learn how to bounce back from disaster and create the societal institutions that help us do so. The real question is whether we’re up for the challenge.
The writer is a founder of NPR’s ‘Planet Money’The New York Times .