Abstract: The Elephant in the Room: The Normality of Failure in the History of Technology

Jonathan Coopersmith


Failure is an integral and normal part of the evolution of technologies and organizations. Widely viewed, failure extends from the commercial collapse of a firm promoting a new technology and the inability of a technology to work to less obvious shortcomings like suboptimal performance, poor economics, and late delivery. Academic disciplines (especially history) have not paid sufficient attention to this important subject, focusing on success. The understandable tendency to focus on what worked instead of on what did not has resulted in a simplified appreciation of the reality of technological evolution. This research explores the importance of failure in the history of technology and offers a theoretical framework to understand and position failure. Failure is an integral part of history, a part that should not be forgotten or excluded. Just as honest biography is more interesting and valuable than an admiring hagiography, so too does historical inquiry benefit from a fuller understanding of its subject. A complete history demands study and analysis not only of the roads taken, but also of the roads not taken and the roads unsuccessfully taken as part of the tortuous, demanding, and uncertain path that technologies follow to move from an idea to a commercial reality.