Monday, February 16, 2009

What is a paradigm shift?

I was just doing a little reading and stumbled across a document that discussed paradigm shifts of technology. Not that the concept is new or mysterious, but I was curious what the technical definition really is. More importantly, I was interested in the application of the concept to technology, commerce, and society in the context of the Internet, Web, Web x.0/social-computing, and how people will earn a living in the future (or even next week) in the New Economy.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary does not define the term paradigm shift, but does offer a reasonable definition for paradigm:

a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated ; broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind

The Wikipedia was far less useful than it usually is. It does have a reasonable explanation for paradigm shifts in science or even social science, but was not so helpful regarding technology and money in the New Economy. The lead for Paradigm shift merely says:

Paradigm shift (sometimes known as extraordinary science or revolutionary science) is the term first used by Thomas Kuhn in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) to describe a change in basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science. It is in contrast to his idea of normal science.

It has since become widely applied to many other realms of human experience as well even though Kuhn himself restricted the use of the term to the hard sciences. According to Kuhn, "A paradigm is what members of a scientific community, and they alone, share." (The Essential Tension, 1997). Unlike a normal scientist, Kuhn held, "a student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself." (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Once a paradigm shift is complete, a scientist cannot, for example, posit the possibility that miasma causes disease or that ether carries light. In contrast, a critic in Humanities can choose to adopt a 19th century theory of poetics, for instance, or interpret economic behaviour from a Marxist perspective.

Thus, paradigms, in the sense that Kuhn used them, do not exist in Humanities or social sciences. Nonetheless, the term has been adopted since the 1960s and applied in non-scientific contexts.

There is very little mention of technology paradigms. The closest is an odd section entitled "As marketing speak":

In the later part of the 1990s, 'paradigm shift' emerged as a buzzword, popularized as marketing speak and appearing more frequently in print and publication. In his book, Mind The Gaffe, author Larry Trask advises readers to refrain from using it, and to use caution when reading anything that contains the phrase. It is referred to in several articles and books as abused and overused to the point of becoming meaningless.

Granted, I agree that the term is overused, but I find it is still applicable and in that original scientific sense.

I find it amusingly noteworthy that the Wikipedia article does not even mention the paradigm shift from books, encyclopedias, and libaries to the Wikipedia itself. Missed that one.

I will offer my own brief definition:

A paradigm is a combination of a worldview and a collection of rules for operating in the context of that worldview. Opportunities are available and success can be achieved when individuals and organizations acknowledge the worldview and follow its rules.

A paradigm shift is a relatively abrupt change that brings about a relatively radically new worldview with new rules, such that opportunities are accessible and success can be achieved only to the extent that individuals and organizations adapt their thinking to the new worldview and adapt their behavior to follow its new rules.

-- Jack Krupansky


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