Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cartoon Physics

When Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, he starts falling only after he realizes the precariousness of his situation.

In real life, cartoon physics is decidedly less funny. Market bubbles arise when a trend continues far past the point where the fundamentals make sense. The bubble bursts when the collective wisdom of the market acts on a reality that should have been obvious much earlier. Because of this unnecessary delay, bubbles inflict much unnecessary damage. We saw it recently with the Internet and mortgage bubbles, but the phenomenon is as old as the tulip bubble of 1637.

We also see cartoon physics in action at less epic scales. Cartoon physics applies to almost any disruptive technology. The established players almost never adapt to the new reality when fundamentals require it or when it is logical to do so. Instead of preparing for a viable future, they fight a losing battle hanging onto the past. Most recently, Blackberry ignored the iPhone thinking its serious corporate clients would not be lured by its gadgetry. There is a long line of disrupted industries whose leadership ignored upstart competitors and new realities. This has been the topic of acclaimed academic studies and popularized in every possible venue.

The blame game is a significant part of the process. The recording industry blamed pirates for destroying the music business. In fact, their own neglect to adapt to a digital age contributed at least as much to the disruption.

The scenario is well known, by now too cliché to be a good movie. Leaders of industries in upheaval should know the playbook. Yet, they keep repeating the mistakes of their disrupted predecessors.

Wile E. Coyote finally learned his lesson and decided to stop looking down.

PS: Cartoon physics does not apply to academic institutions, which are protected by their importance and seriousness.

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