Technological Paradigms

Last summer a couple of my friends sent their eight-year-old daughter off to camp for the first time, and as they dropped her off, they gave her some money to buy a few things while she was there. In addition to those sugary snacks that every camper sucks down with abandon, she also bought a disposable film camera so she could take pictures of her new friends and all the fun things they were doing. When she returned home she told her parents all about her time at camp, and said she was eager to show them the photos she took on the camera she bought. Her parents asked, “so where is the camera? We need to send it in to be developed.” She calmly replied, “I threw it away—it said it was disposable. The pictures are on the Internet, right?”

My friends’ daughter was just young enough that she had never seen a film camera before. Her parents have taken many pictures of her, but they had always done so using their mobile phones or a digital camera. For her, ‘cameras’ are things that capture digital photos and upload them to a computer or the Internet; the very concepts of ‘film’ and ‘developing’ were completely foreign to her.

Kodak "Instamatic" CameraI found this story to be fascinating, not only because I am a historian of technology, but also because I am the son of a former Kodak employee. My father worked for Kodak for 35 years, and the recent stories of their plans for bankruptcy have been especially poignant for him. But when he started there, Kodak was at the height of their game. They had developed a line of point-and-shoot consumer cameras that enabled anyone, even those with absolutely no knowledge of photography whatsoever, to take reasonably good pictures. But the cameras themselves were not the real money maker. They were like the low-profit razor sold below cost so that you could sell a lifetime of high-profit razor blades. The real money for Kodak was in the sale of film and developing services.

Film, of course, is a consumable. Once you expose a segment of film to light, it can’t be used again. It’s also pretty much useless until you develop it and make prints. Taking a picture thus came at a double price: the cost of the film and the cost of processing, both of which were high-margin businesses. For every camera Kodak sold, they also sold hundreds of rolls of film, and most of those rolls were developed with Kodak chemicals and printed on Kodak paper. Kodak supplied the entire platform—the cameras, the film (both movie and still), the developing chemicals, the photosensitive paper—and they packaged it all together as a well-marketed, customer-friendly service. It was a complete cash cow.

Kodak Disc CameraKodak did continue to develop new variations on this theme, though they seemed to have less and less luck with them as the years went on. I remember the day my father returned from a super-secret business trip back to Rochester with a briefcase literally handcuffed to his wrist. My brother and I stared in wonder, assuming that our father had become a government agent and that the whole Kodak thing was just a cover. But alas, the case didn’t contain state secrets or foam-encased spy gear; instead it contained these strange-looking flat cameras that used a type of film that looked vaguely like a viewmaster disc. My dad proudly declared that these “disc cameras” were the wave of the future, and in the early 1980s, they really did look futuristic. But disc cameras were ultimately doomed by their tiny lens and negative. In theory, disc cameras had the potential of taking better pictures than a 110, but in practice, it was too easy to take blurry pictures, and even clear ones looked unacceptably grainy when printed larger than 3×5″.

First Working Digital CameraBut even before the first disc cameras were introduced, Kodak’s R&D engineers had put together something that would not only revolutionize photography, but also kill off that very lucrative cash cow: the first working digital camera, built in 1975. Over the next two decades, Kodak actually played a leading role in developing digital photosensors and digital photo printing kiosks. They even entered the consumer digital camera market, albeit too late to displace the likes of Sony, Cannon, and Nikon.

The trouble was, none of these business offered the same high profit margins as film and developing. Digital cameras, of course, require no film. Taking a picture is essentially free, and making a print is entirely optional now that we can share them on social networks. Digital photography fundamentally changed the economics of the business to the benefit of the consumer, and there was no going back. The consumables would all but disappear, and the internal hardware (sensors) would quickly become commoditized and unbranded.

So why did Kodak continue to invest in new film devices like the disc camera when they had the chance to become the leader in the new world of digital photography? This is most likely a hot topic in business management schools, and I’m sure that some are suggesting that Kodak purposely tried to delay the onset of digital photography to milk every last drop out of their film and developing cash cow. I haven’t researched Kodak’s story enough to know one way or the other, but I would guess that the full history is more complicated than that. That first working digital camera was only a proof of concept: the exposure time was reportedly 23 seconds, it captured the image to a cassette tape, playback required a separate TV, and the resolution was far worse than film. It would have been difficult to predict in 1975 that all the technical problems could be worked out, that a portable and easy-to-use device could be designed and manufactured, and that consumers would actually adopt a very different kind of camera. At the time, film-based photography would probably have seemed like the safer bet.

Now we know different. Digital photography displaced film faster than most would have predicted, and Kodak is contemplating declaring bankruptcy if they can’t sell off their patent portfolio. My friends’ eight-year-old learned about the concept of film the hard way, but those born in the near future will likely learn about photographic film only as a historical phenomenon.

All of this reminds me of a term that Giovanni Dosi introduced in an article he published back in 1982: “technological paradigms.” The term comes from Thomas Kuhn’s classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argues that scientific knowledge develops within constraining paradigms that limit the kinds of questions researchers ask, the kinds of evidence they consider to be legitimate, and the sort of explanations they consider plausible. Instead of seeing the history of science as a smooth, continuous progression towards objective “Truth,” Kuhn portrays it as a series of dominant research paradigms that radically shift from one to the next.

In a similar vein, Dosi argues that technologies tend to develop along trajectories that are governed by a dominant paradigm. This paradigm limits what kinds of solutions are investigated, causing engineers to favor incremental changes to the existing paradigm over radical departures from it. Every practicing engineer knows that it is far easier to sell the management on a slight improvement to an existing design than on a risky, untested, radically new one. This is especially true when the new design would eliminate the most profitable aspect of the current business.

But eventually the dominant paradigm shifts, and that radical disruption creates new opportunities in the market that may enable new players to rise, or an even larger industry restructuring to occur. In the case of photography, the shift from film to digital is a case in point. Even though Kodak may have invented the techniques behind digital photography, they seem to have been limited by the dominant paradigm of film.

What other kinds of artifacts or devices will your children and grandchildren only know from history books?


10 thoughts on “Technological Paradigms

  1. Christopher

    Great blog. This kind of stuff is fascinating not only for how business models work in practice, but for understanding the culture we live in. Whilst reading this I couldn’t help but think of this as a fable, about oil consumption and the search for alternative fuel.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks Christopher! Yes, I think you are right—there are many parallels to oil and alternative energy. One thing I didn’t discuss is how technological paradigms shift. In some cases consumers acting through the market can facilitate it, but other times it takes a stronger governmental intervention. Since our government and oil interests seem to be so enmeshed, that latter option seems less likely for now.

  2. Jeff

    Nice article Dave. In a sense, digital photos have shifted the market from film to electronic storage. I don’t have to buy or process the film, but now have to buy TB’s worth of disk drive to store everything (plus electricity and display devices to even view the photos). The medium shifts create a new market for consumers to spend…kind of like vinyl – 8-track / cassette tape – CD – DVD – BlueRay – MP3 (coincidentally, SOPA protest day today)

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Great point Jeff. I remember that Kodak tried to get into electronic storage via the “Photo CD system.” You would send physical prints (or digital photos) to them and they’d send back a CD containing the digitized photos and some photo-viewing software. I think they did a DVD version as well where it played the photos with Ken Burns type effects. It all failed though, probably because they didn’t really know what they were doing with computers. They were a chemical company, not an electronics one.

  3. Adam

    Dave, your last paragraph reminded me of The Innovator’s Dilemma which I recently listened to an abridged audio version of. It looks at “disruptive technologies” and how they are better able to grow in small companies than large ones. The author examines processes and values inherent to a large company (probably akin to “tech paradigms”) that inhibit its ability to embrace disruptive technology. Check it out.

  4. Rosie Perera

    Great article, Dave. Whew, and to think that I could have worked at Kodak. I interviewed with them in Rochester during my senior year of college. Can’t remember whether I got a job offer or not. The one from Microsoft was the only thing on my mind. I’m sure glad I made the choice I did.

    A camera that saves its images to cassette tape! How clunky that sounds to us now. Reminds me of the Radio Shack “Trash-80” with attached cassette recorder for data storage.

    As for you final question, I’m reminded of this recent story on mental_floss: 11 Sounds That Your Kids Have Probably Never Heard.

    As I watch my nephew (now 3) grow up, I am constantly thinking of how different the world of technology he takes for granted is now from the way it was when I was a kid. It’s really mind-blowingly different. Anything he hears about or imagines, he can have instant access to online. I was showing him my Android tablet and letting him play around with a piano app I’d downloaded for him. He suddenly stopped and said “I want to play guitar.” I didn’t have a guitar app, but of course I figured there must be one, so a quick search and then a download, and a minute later he was strumming the virtual strings of a guitar. He didn’t think that was amazing at all. He’s grown to expect it.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Yeah, Microsoft turned out to be the much better choice! By the time you were looking for a job, Kodak was already sliding downward.

      Great story about your nephew! Is he leaning yet towards any particular instrument (in material reality that is)?

      1. Rosie Perera

        He likes playing the real piano. He had one in his bedroom for the first two years of his life, but his parents had to give it back to the person it was on long-term loan from. So now he has to satisfy himself with their electronic keyboard. But he was already playing one note at a time on the piano before he was 2, and looking curiously under the keyboard to see how it was making that sound, and he knew the difference between low notes and high notes. Photo here. He also has a toy trumpet that I gave him (not trying to influence him towards my instrument, or anything 🙂 ), and has had the opportunity to play all kinds of percussion instruments at various times and likes those too. And he has tried my Dad’s recorder and likes that. I think he’ll be quite a well-rounded musician.

  5. Pingback: The Social Meaning of Technology | tech.soul.culture

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