28 June 2015

What the Acceleration of Product Adoption Means for Politicians Who Resist Social Change

"Dude," did you see how the gays just like, organized and got same-sex marriage legal, like, everywhere?"
Dude exhales. Giggles. "Yeah."
"We should, like, totally do that for weed."
Inhales. Long seconds pass. Exhales. Stares into space. "Yeah. That would be so cool."

Marijuana legalization has lagged same-sex marriage legalization for some reason, but both are trending upwards. Social norms are changing. And the rate at which they are changing is accelerating.

Friday, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal throughout the United States. While Massachusetts was the first state to make it legal, it is worth remembering that San Francisco was the first government within the US to legalize same-sex marriage. San Francisco has also led the nation in entrepreneurship. Social innovation shows up as both entrepreneurship and as new norms and laws.

One of the most central drivers behind progress is social invention. We all know that the steam engine was central to the emergence of an industrial economy. People are less likely to realize that the emergence of the stock market and modern bank were just as important. The steam engine is an example of a technological invention. The stock market is an example of a social invention. The first lets parts do what they could not do before, resulting in new or different products. The second lets people do what they could not do before, resulting in new or different institutions.

During the last century, people have become more open to change. We expect technological invention and the parade of new products it brings. This chart from Pew shows how the time it takes for us to adopt new products has accelerated. It took 35 years for the telephone to be adopted by one-quarter of us, but only 13 years for the mobile phone. And the rate at which adoption is accelerating is accelerating. The PC took 16 years to be adopted by one-quarter of us, and once we had it took just 7 years for one-quarter of us to get online. We adopted the internet twice as fast as we adopted computers and four times as fast as we adopted radio.

This matter of accelerating adoption rates matters to anyone predicting social change. We don't just adopt new technologies. We adopt new norms. And, just like with technology, the rate at which we're adopting new norms is accelerating.

In no small part because what starts out as technological innovation becomes social innovation. The automobile drove the creation of the suburbs. Radio and TV drove mass consumption. The computer drove online trading. New products lead to new behaviors. As we become more accepting of new products, we become more open to new norms.

The rapidity of change in product adoption is echoed in a change in social norms. The rise in acceptance of same-sex marriage in the last 20 years has been remarkable. It has more than doubled since 1996, in less than 20 years.

A shift in product adoption can make or break companies. A shift in the adoption of norms can make or break political parties.

The Whig Party died in the US when Republican Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation. The shift in norms from slavery being legal to being illegal was a greater shift than this week's legalization of same-sex marriage, and it took out a party when it hit. The Republicans continued to lead into the next century. Along with progressives like former-Republican Teddy Roosevelt, Republicans helped to legalize women's vote. 

But of course now, Republicans aren't thought of as disruptive social innovators. Instead, they are associated with resisting new social norms. They are the political equivalent of the ones who don't have a phone in the 1960s or don't have a computer in 2000. They don't lead the adoption of new social norms. They resist it.

Anyone who points to the fact that Republicans still have good numbers in most states needs to remember how quickly markets for products and political ideas can reach a tipping point and shift. Until the Republicans re-brand themselves as social innovators, they risk becoming the Whig Party of the 21st century.

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