Category Archives: HoTeES

"Change or Die!": The History of an Innovator’s Aphorism

I asked Matt Wisnioski to share something with our readers about the history of technological change and innovation in celebration of the release of his book, Engineers for Change. I’m extraordinarily happy to offer this guest post on the unexpectedly fascinating history of a modern slogan. Change or die!

Innovation advertisement from 1970.
Source: “Change or Die!” Electronic Design 18, no. 13 (1970), 64.


A sure sign that an idiom has become a meme is when journalists attract page clicks by speculating on what it would mean to take it literally. That was the opening conceit of Alan Deutschman’s 2005 article “Change or Die” for the magazine Fast Company. Summarizing IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook conference, where “the most farsighted thinkers from around the world” addressed seemingly intractable global problems, he argued that science has shown that in only one time out of nine, when faced with preventable conditions like heart attacks, are people able to change. The lesson translates across all realms of human activity. Confronted with radical changes from outside their walls, businesses find themselves unable to adapt. If they hope to thrive, corporate leaders need a “strategy for continuous mental rejuvenation and new learning,” he quotes neuroscientist and entrepreneur Michael Merzenich. In his article and subsequent monograph of the same title, Deutschman had his finger on a pulse that he simultaneously helped create. A Google search of change or die combined with its parent term innovation generates over two million hits, including “change management” blogs, studies of the cable television industry, and policy analyses of biomedical research.

Alan Deutschman’s book. Source: http://www.alandeutschman.com/books_change_061206.htm

Few aphorisms so pithily capture the ethos of contemporary technoscience. “Change or die” evokes the making of new technologies in an environment of rapid disruption. Entrepreneurial, goal-oriented research upends the administrative and financial structures of entire industries. Simultaneous advances in a diverse range of fields intersect to produce research opportunities and new markets. Hybrid teams of experts coalesce and dissolve across disciplinary, institutional, and national boundaries. The result is a chaotic engine of accelerating progress that brings great reward to the survivors. It is an expression of Darwinian logic that applies to economics, to knowledge making, and, most of all, to the knowledge workers charged with living in a state of creative flow.

Like “innovation” itself, “change or die” is a strikingly novel expression. One finds the smallest trickle of precursors. The phrase makes an appearance in a 1710 sermon that admonishes ministers to have fortitude when encountering the “proudest Worms on earth.” It again surfaces in a handful of 19th century poems and songs. The Massachusetts anti-slavery politician Charles Sumner and the adventure novelist Zane Grey also hit upon the idiom. In his 1939 book Patterns of Survival, the geologist John Hodgdon Bradley was one of the first to give “change or die” an evolutionary interpretation.

Charles Sumner’s “Our Domestic Relations: Or, How to Treat the Rebel States,” (1861).  Source: Google Books

In these earlier uses “change or die” was neither admonition nor binary choice. Curiously, in 1961, it evolved into an axiom of sociotechnical Darwinianism in an editorial titled “Change or Die” in Voice, the magazine of the Cement, Lime, Gypsum, and Allied Workers which argued that “reactionary organizations” such as the Chamber of Commerce had been unable to adapt to the industrial economy and operated with an obsolete mindset suited to the “bygone era” of King George III. But, its widespread manifestation as a Heraclitian axiom is due to an organized cadre of entrepreneurs in the 1960s and early 1970s.

In 1961, William Maass, a charismatic vice-president at Conover-Mast (publisher of Boating Industry and Volume Feeding Management) had a vision for a “new kind of publication” designed to help scientists, engineers, and research managers keep pace with the technological age. According to Maass, the “consumption of fundamental science by technology” had accelerated such that time from “idea” to “utilization” was reduced from decades to weeks, obliterating distinctions between scientists and engineers. Supported entirely by advertising, his magazine International Science and Technology was given away for free to 120,000 of the world’s top technoscientific practitioners. Produced by leading science journalists, including senior editor Robert Colborn—Dartmouth engineering grad, published novelist, and former editor of Business Week—and an august advisory board, it carried interviews with Nobel Prize winners, technical executives at Bell Labs, and science administrators from France, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union. It also offered intimations of an emerging ideology of innovation.

International Science and Technology 1962 February
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bustbright/3516360061/in/photostream/

In November 1964, IST launched an advertising campaign in business magazines and newspapers, as well a film oriented to corporate marketing divisions, with the slogan “Change or Die!” literally written on a wall. Maass assured his scientific readership that they were the drivers of technical advance, that it was the marketing and business side that did not yet understand the epochal revolution in which they were living, and that they needed to prepare themselves to adjust.

By 1968, a confluence of technological and political revolutions upended any semblance of stability in the life of knowledge workers, who no longer could consider themselves modernity’s agents of change. Maass, Colborn, and their growing team of likeminded technoscientists anchored by Jack Morton of Bell Labs positioned themselves as spokesmen and tour guides of a world “in a state of … rapid and intricate change” like “liquid in turbulent flow.”  They left the established publishing realm in an entrepreneurial venture they called the “Innovation Group.” For a cost of $75 dollars annually, an overlapping community of authors and audience that included venture capitalists, research executives, philosophers, and entrepreneurs would receive the magazine Innovation and could engage in networked conference calls with the likes of Milton Friedman or attend electronically-mediated executive retreats with strong resemblance to TED talks. [See a sample cover of the magazine, designed by Chermayeff & Geismar.]

In 1970, the Innovation Group recycled Change or Die! as a philosophy for everyone. In the advertisement excerpted above, which ran in major business and technical journals, they presented their magazine’s core functions. Innovation first provided technoscientific practitioners an encompassing explanatory frame, “a unique picture of what is happening to your work environment.” But it then promised to equip readers with an introduction to “the most powerful of the new management techniques,” that included systems thinking and technological forecasting, so that they might impose order on an “ever-changing environment.” These were to be learned in the microelectronics industry through interviews with Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, in the avant-garde of new media with primers on time-sharing, in accounts of struggles to adapt by traditional automakers, and in innovative solutions to environmental pollution that engaged business as much as government.

“Our article will prescribe no morals…” from the 1970 Innovation ad

The unified ideal of Innovation and the select few for whom Change or Die! sparked enthusiasm rather than lament was that of the “change manager.” The concept of the change manager was the individualization of meaningful direction in a chaotic world. The process of innovation could never be controlled fully. With the right mentality and the right tools of augmentation, however, one could “see ahead” and “make things happen.” It was (returning to Deutschman’s terms) the ability to “frame change,” “support change,” and understand “your brain on change.”

In its second dip into the advertising well, however, the Innovation Group signaled its own difficulties of adaptation. The ad represented a major change in strategy from speaking to rarified elites to a broader audience of middle managers. Aesthetically, the ad—with its the coupon, dramatic price drop, abundance of explanatory text, and overwrought justification for the change in business plan, was a pale reflection of the avant-garde quality of Innovation itself. Behind the scenes, Innovation would experience multiple tragedies. In 1970, Colborn died of cancer. Then Morton was found murdered in the charred remains of his car, the victim of a violent mugging. In 1972, Innovation unceremoniously was absorbed by the economics journal Business and Society Review, another young publication that bore little in common with it stylistically or ideologically. Staff dispersed to do public relations for companies such as Xerox, corporate consulting, and freelance science writing.

“Coupon” from the 1970 Innovation ad

One need “prescribe no morals” but may “easily read the application” to see that when the Innovation Group faced its own advice, for reasons beyond its control, it did both.

Matthew Wisnioski is assistant professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech. He is the author of Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America, the first book in the MIT Press’ new Engineering Studies series. He is at work on a new book titled Inventing Innovators that explores the rise of innovation discourses and design methods in post-WWII technoscientific identity.

The Other 2012 Prophecy

I asked Joseph November, Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, to share this techno-prophesy with our audience. He was kind enough to oblige me. Enjoy! (If you want to read more, check out his new book):

Closing in on December 21, 2012, there are few credible signs of the prophesied apocalypse. However, there’s another set of 2012 predictions, one pertaining to the use of electronics in medicine that just might be worthy of your notice.

Lusted’s 1962 Paper, as reprinted in 2000

In “Bio-Medical Electronics-2012 A.D” [pay-wall], Lee B. Lusted, M.D. imagined he was writing a letter to his 1962 Proceedings of the IRE audience from fifty years in the future. In his short but captivating essay, Lusted, a radar engineer-turned-radiologist who at the time headed the National Institutes of Health’s first effort to computerize biology and medicine, set forth his vision of what medicine would be like in the future he was helping to build.

Besides offering fascinating benchmarks for both providers and consumers of medical care, Lusted’s speculations provide us with a window into the thinking of one of the most influential, though seldom-discussed, shapers of today’s medicine.

Writing to 1962 from his envisioned 2012, Lusted made the following observations:

  • “Nearly all of the body organs can now be replaced by compact artificial organs with built-in control systems. This includes the heart, kidneys, stomach, and even liver…. The ability to find the correct nerve circuits and to trace the circuit like a telephone repairman was developed in the early 1990’s and it is this technique, made possible by microelectrodes and very compact flexible computers, which permits the quick hook-up of artificial organs.”
  •  “Long flexible fiber optic bundles can be inserted into any body orifice and also into arteries and veins so that the physician can look around inside any organ in the body…The old unsolved problem of the 1960’s of trying to find a small bleeding vessel in the small intestine is easily solved now because the surgeon can look around inside the intestine, with one fiber scope and simultaneously inspect the blood vessels to the intestine with a fiber scope which he has inserted into the blood vessel system.”
  •  “Micro chemical analysis, high speed computers, the extensive use of information theory and recently developed new mathematical techniques now help identify the exact composition of the nucleic acids and a host of enzyme systems.”
  •  “The position of the chemical constituents such as amino acids in all of the complex chemical systems is now known. It is also possible with about a 90 per cent probability of success to replace any defective amino acid within a nucleic acid. This technical development has made it possible to develop a superior system of genetics. Genetic defects which were unavoidable in the twentieth century can now be avoided, or if they do occur they can be repaired… parents can now choose to have a boy or a girl (with about 90 per cent probability of success).”
  •  “The early bio-medical computing systems and electronic diagnosis systems developed in the United States were sent to other countries, such as India, Africa and South America where they were very helpful to the few available doctors who were trying to look after the health of large populations.”
  • “By 2000 A.D. people have become accustomed to the regular health checkup most of which they can have in their own homes. On a given day at an appointed time the person goes to some room in the house where equipment has been installed and connected to the local medical center.”

It’s hard not to read through Lusted’s imagined report from 2012 without a knowing smile or a twinge of regret, but what should not be forgotten is that Lusted was writing in earnest and from the perspective of someone who was in a position to channel federal funds towards the development of the wondrous advances he predicted. Granted, many aspects of the future Lusted imagined did not come about, but this was not for a lack of trying or resources.

In my new book, Biomedical Computing: Digitizing Life in the United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), I show how Lusted’s widely influential computing advocacy (often written in collaboration with Robert Ledley, the inventor of the whole-body CT scanner) and his actions as chair of the powerful NIH Advisory Committee on Computers in Research during the early 1960s laid much of the groundwork for the computerization of biology and medicine. Computer-dependent biomedical endeavors like the Human Genome Project and Evidence-Based Medicine have many roots that can be traced to Lusted’s vision and patronage. The book also makes the case that Lusted and his fellow visionaries at the NIH sponsored work that helped to bring about major changes in computing itself, including the development of personal computers.

[I thank Dan Bouk for giving me the opportunity to share this story here!] No, Joe. Thank you!

(Capitalist) Numbers to Narratives

Lee kicked of a lively discussion Friday as he wondered what the history of capitalism had to say to the history of technology, (medicine?), environment, and science (HoTeES, or HoTMeS?). Lee postulated that the interactions of capitalism/political economy and science might be expected within the realms of shared problems and jointly produced tools. I wrote a dissertation about “tools for discrimination” and the “science of difference,” wherein life insurers are shown to be important sponsors of investigations into human difference—so I am on board. To help me judge Lee’s hypothesis, I would like to offer a few posts over the next week that point to intersections between these two fields (HofCapitalism, HofScience/Tech/Med/Env). Let’s get empirical, so to speak!

A different sort of account book, but an accounting nonetheless—from Samuel Blodget’s Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (1806)

Evidence 1: Caitlin Rosenthal’s exquisite essay in the most recent issue of Common-place, one of the hippest journals around. Rosenthal has one big argument, accented by a score of anecdotal gems. She argues that account books, whatever else they might be, are always narratives—they tell stories. This, she claims, was true for the early nineteenth century books that now populate her historical work and remains true for the accounting summaries published by firms like Countrywide Financial on the brink of its disastrous unraveling.

Rosenthal battles the false conception that keeping accounts implies a mechanical, objective system (or, really, that such a system precludes narratives). Her case rests in part on evidence that nineteenth century systems were anything but mechanical: indexes were just being invented and were hardly standardized, accounting procedures varied from account keeper to account keeper (to much consternation). But she closes the piece noting that today’s accounting system, although constrained by hosts of rules and standards, still produces narrative documents, which are trusted with peril.

Yet Rosenthal’s point does not appear to me to be destructive or skeptical—she has not come to bury objectivity, accounting, what-have-you. In fact, much of the essay revels in the details of early nineteenth century bookkeeping practices, asking, not judging. The question arises over and over: why did all these individuals keep books?

One answer Rosenthal provides is this:

Keeping accounts was a daily quest for useful information. Sometimes quantitative information was punctuated by a bit of prose, verbalizing the intentions of a book’s keeper. In 1870, Thaddeus Fish of Kingston, Massachusetts, contemplated the buying and selling of eggs in his account book. He described how a woman had “bought 150 eggs of a country man.” She sold all of the eggs, but at an array of different prices, some yielding a profit, but others a loss. Fish, puzzling over her business, supplemented his muddled calculations with text: “I Demand to know whether she Lost or gained by her eggs.” The urgency of his demand reflected neither profit seeking nor an opposition to it. Rather it revealed the daily necessity of understanding whether time was well spent and which risks were worth taking.

She also points to accounts kept to facilitate long distance management, to discipline laborers, to judge workers’ alcohol consumption (and morals, implicitly), to facilitate inheritance, and more generally to provide some antidote to the complexity of modern life.

So, how can we use Rosenthal’s piece as evidence in our general investigation? First, we might decide to conclude something not-that-surprising: that historical or sociological approaches to knowledge (like Ted Porter, who looms here, next to Michel Foucault, among others) have provided useful tools for historians of capitalism like Rosenthal (although I’m not sure if that’s a label she would embrace).

Second, we might say something more significant: that nineteenth century Americans (and lots of other people too) were interested in making sense of an increasingly complex, interconnected world. They encountered overlapping and interrelated problems of trust (how do I decide who to invest in, or who to believe?), problems of risk (how do I decide whether its worthwhile to invest or believe?), and problems of knowledge (what is true? what will work?). To solve these problems, they (whether businessmen, farmers, or scientists) turned to new tools and techniques, and especially to quantification.

Finally, we might learn a lesson from the attention to materiality in Rosenthal’s essay and apply that to our investigations of new shared knowledge practices. Rosenthal shows us account keepers writing over every corner of a book, desperate to save expensive paper, for instance. How did those account books compare to the ledgers and notebooks that scientists increasingly relied upon? Did astronomers and actuaries go to the same shops in New York (the Mutual of New York, I happen to know, bought all its accounting materials from a printer on Nassau Street in the 1850s)? My guess is: yes. In so far as the actuaries were often also astronomers, the answer was surely yes. So I will add a category to Lee’s speculations: shared problems, shared tools, and shared materials.

[Three different people sent me a link to Caitlin Rosenthal’s piece in the space of two days—it might have taken me a while longer to find it otherwise. Thanks to GH, HR, and MK.]