Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Monday, March 20, 2023

Resistance is Futile 

<img style="float: left;" src="" alt="" width="95" height="64" border="0" />Resistance to change is as natural as change itself – but history tells us that change is inevitable. As the Third Industrial Revolution approaches, those who stand to benefit should jump on board, not try to stand in the way.

People aren’t inherently resistant to change unless they fear – rationally or otherwise – that a change is going to negatively impact them. Dentists didn’t rise up against the electric toothbrush, because even though it’s a “better” approach to tooth-cleaning, it wasn’t going to put any dentists out of business. Meanwhile there’s a lot of resistance against, say, aggressive adoption of new energy sources. Why? Well, to be blunt, there are a lot of oil workers and coal miners who’d like to keep their jobs, even if oil and coal are becoming a problem. That’s understandable but also narrow-minded.

The problem with this resistance to change is that change is inevitable, and few lessons are ever actually learned from history. Interest groups of all kinds react against things they perceive as a threat but never seem to realize (until it’s too late) that they’re standing in front of a freight train.

Take the record industry. It was clear ten or twelve years ago that digital music was the future. And because the record industry wasn’t moving toward any kind of realistic adoption, people, being people, started pirating a lot of MP3s on the internet. This was wrong. Tools like Kazaa and Napster did their part to facilitate stealing, regardless of what their “official” purpose was. And what did the record industry do? It tried, with some success, to crush the file-sharing services. Later it started going after individuals.

On one hand that makes sense, right? Thieves are eating into your business and you should stop them. But the inherent shortsightedness here wasn’t that the record industry tried to stop piracy; it’s that it tried to keep things the way they had always been. That is, $18 albums, no downloads, iron-fisted control over the music we listen to and how we get it. The record industry isn’t inherently resistant to change (it adopted CDs over cassettes willingly enough); it was resistant to something it perceived as a threat instead of an opportunity.

But people are also not inherently resistant to paying for something they want. Along came Apple with its iTunes service and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that most folks are more than happy to pay for their music, so long as the price is fair and they have a degree of freedom to use their purchase the way they want to. Sure, there’s still piracy, and there always will be. Before file sharing, kids would just stuff a bunch of CDs into their pants and race for the door of the record shop. You can’t stop that either, though given the industry’s behavior when it comes to digital music I’m surprised they didn’t try to have pants banned.

Given the choice, the recording industry would never have toed the line with iTunes or Amazon Music Store. It tried and tried and tried to stop digital music altogether, failing to recognize that internet-delivered digital music was going to become a reality whether they liked it or not. If they’d banded together before iTunes and started their own online service, they’d be reaping the rewards. Instead they tried to destroy something beyond their power to destroy. Heck, they’re still trying to destroy it.

Meanwhile, the automation craze in the 1980s led to lots of fear that robots would kill all the manufacturing jobs. A lot of people argued vehemently that things should stay the way they were. The irony there is that plenty of other stuff was on hand to kill manufacturing jobs, and the robots had practically nothing to do with it. All that energy wasted trying to stop the rise of the robots, and guess what? The robots rose anyway and turned out to be a huge boon for society as a whole, not just manufacturing.

And now here we are on the precipice of a new Industrial Revolution; the advent of Digital Manufacturing and all the changes it promises to bring to the way we build things. It’s easy to minimize digital manufacturing, to think of it as just one tool: applying supercomputing to engineering and manufacturing challenges. But that’s just a tiny piece of the puzzle. Digital Manufacturing is not a technique, it is a philosophy. You don’t have a new industrial revolution by adopting a new tool or technique, you must look at traditional processes through an entirely new lens.

We have observed plenty of resistance to the adoption of digital manufacturing, though it’s not particularly unified right now and seems based in a number of easily addressable misconceptions. Many manufacturers I talk to, for example, just don’t understand what it is or why they’d want it. Others hear about the supercomputers and immediately assume that either (A) it doesn’t apply to them or (B) even if it did, they can’t afford it. Others still seem to understand the concepts involved but insist that they want to do what they’ve always done – just quietly build to spec.

Like MP3s, digital manufacturing is going to happen. The only question is how quickly will the transformation occur, and how complete will it be when it does. For the smaller manufacturers who’ve always done things a certain way, I sympathize with the reticence. Change is scary. For manufacturers who fear that a digital revolution will mean the end of their jobs, I understand. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that. In fact, it probably just means that their jobs will change, much as automation changed the machine operators’ role. Fear is natural enough. The only mistake is to allow that concern to manifest as an attempt to block something that’s utterly unblockable.

Change is not always good – but it is a universal constant. Economics, technologies, politics; everything changes. And it is natural to perceive major changes as threats. The record companies looked at digital music and saw a threat to the way things had always been done. That was their mistake. The smarter, if scarier, move would have been to sit down and say, “look, this is coming. We could try to stop it but we’d fail. Instead, how can we take this supposed ‘threat’ and turn it into an opportunity?” It is, in a way, the perceived difference between a threat and a promise. One is bad. One is not always bad, but can only be made into a true positive if it’s adopted, and embraced.

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