'Change or Die!': The History of the Innovator's Aphorism

Few aphorisms so pithily capture the ethos of contemporary technoscience. Here's the story of how it gained popularity.

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Advertisement from Electronic Design, 1970

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.

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Alan Deutschman's book

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.

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Charles Sumner's "Our Domestic Relations: Or, How to Treat the Rebel States," (1861). (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.

Presented by

Matthew Wisnioski is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, where he studies the cultural history of design, innovation, and technology. He is the author of Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America.

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