Postmodernism’s Repetition and the Product Design Process

Here I make yet another connection from postmodern philosophy to business strategy. This is from Deleuze’s early work, Difference & Repetition in which he gathers ideas made by previous thinkers and notices a theme of repetition deeply ingrained in the nature of human enterprises. To make this powerful idea applicable, I will examine how it aids us in the most difficult time of a business’ lifecycle, crossing over to the mainstream market.

It’s not obvious from the elusive (and almost mundane) title of this book, but Difference & Repetition discovers something very subtle yet powerful about our habits. Any conscientious person who knows the power of routine can attest to this. Postmodernism is arguably the era of philosophy we are in currently, or at least the last known era of any one cohesive movement, and it has affected our culture in ways that are hard to measure, one direct reference would be The Matrix. One of the most influential philosophers of this movement is Deleuze, and D&R is his first publication.

The important thing to understand is that there are two types of repetitions. Let’s start with a simple analogy. The sun rises every day, that is a phenomenon of nature that repeats. There are complex physics associated with it yes, but is there any meaning? Well, maybe — if it involves humans. We humans will attach meaning to this, for example “the sun will rise tomorrow with certainty” as a kind of metaphor for hope. When a clinically depressed individual wakes up each morning and sees the sunrise, and thinks, ‘I’ve made it to another day’, this is a different type of repetition than the sun, in nature, returning to a specific timezone. The distinction is the most important part to understand because it’s easy to confuse the second, meaningful repetition with the first non-meaningful one, because on the surface they look so alike.

Confusing right? Now that we are warmed up, let’s go one level deeper. A friend made a joke to me on my birthday that I’m turning 27 for the 4th time, in an attempt to make me feel better. So why is that not the case? Why is a birthday different every time? If we are simply marking on our calendars that we made another revolution around the sun, why not just treat it as such, as a marker to notice, the same way we may passingly notice a checkpoint when running laps? We could for example, say a child has turned 1 (one more year) for the third time, instead of celebrating their 3rd birthday. But this is counterintuitive because of course it is important that they turned three. What is really ingrained here is how humans used birthdays to celebrate the survival of life, particularly when it was treacherous. You might begin to see the stronghold of this bias if you tried to code a birthday program on a computer — see how quickly you have to give it special instructions to repeat and add 1, instead of simply repeating.

This is the point that Deleuze wants to make, that in the second type of repetition there is a different, meaningful, even soulful nature. Not only that, there is also power — human willpower. One of the inspirations he draws from is Nietzsche’s famous Will to Power. When you celebrate your 31st birthday, you are acknowledging not only this day but that you have overcome whatever challenges in your life up to this point. Those challenges may include ones from the previous year when you were 30, or could be ones you carried since you were 3. Now remember the previous birthday when you turned 30, you celebrated your whole life as well. When you think of birthdays in terms of overcoming challenges, especially the types of challenges that lead to and build upon accomplishing more of them, this point becomes a little more clear: the celebration of this birthday includes the celebration of every previous year. In math we say something is to the nth power to indicate that a number will be multiplied to its own self. We repeat birthdays to the nth power.

This applies to other things of course, even Christmas (try to celebrate Christmas without remembering every childhood memory of Christmas). It applies to Olympic athletes training the same exact muscles in the same exact way, many, many times, but with intention. This is what Deleuze tries to capture about Nietzsche’s Will to Power, the will to achieve something is not so much a determined effort, isolated in time, but a power that is multiplied upon itself through meaningful repetition. The difference between two types of repetition, one without power, and one with power is summed up as thus,

One is repetition in the effect, the other in the cause.

This is an interesting distinction to apply to the product design process. Many companies are born, and some may find initial success with a great product, but rarely are they able to repeat that success and hence secure the greater market. In Crossing the Chasm, which strategizes how to break into the elusive mainstream market, there is a warning against chasing every possible sell after an initial success in a niche market. The reasoning being that any product that you sell to an additional niche customer type is a distraction from what you could be selling to the larger, mainstream customer. This may not be obvious at the time, but it is like winning the battle but losing the war, particularly in the environment of extreme competition. It is simply not additive to the success of the initial product (that did succeed) and will not scale growth exponentially.

So how to repeat the cause? An example might best illustrate this. I love referring to Apple for a great story. After its initial success with Apple computers, it entered a long, stagnant and treacherous period of being unable to innovate. Both the company (and Steve Jobs himself with NeXT) tried unsuccessfully to repeat the effect by making different versions of the Apple computer. The Apple computer’s innovation was to bring computing power, which at the time was only accessible to government, academia, and large businesses into the hands of everyday consumers. Its purpose was very clear: computers for the everyday customer, to be used for their own needs. This is subtle but distinct from Microsoft, for example, which makes software for business. Yes, customers can still use MSWord to write their manuscript, but it’s designed for corporate work. This is the cause that was mastered when Steve Jobs returned to Apple to save a failing company, not with any groundbreaking new technology, but to tweak the design of apple computers with a plastic casing in cool new colours to drive home this message: computers are for you to be used for what you want. It sold, and the company stabilized.

I imagine that at this point, Jobs figured out the formula that customers wanted things disrupted for their own consumption. He next took on the music industry, which had the power over consumers to do such things like, charging for an entire album when they knew there was only one hit song that people wanted to hear, leaving people with no choice but to overspend. With the iTunes subscription and the iPod, customers were able to select singles and listen offline. The axis of the music industry was forever tilted towards the everyday consumer. Apple successfully repeated the cause, and they say, the rest is history.

I think the last example is enough to drive home the lesson. Allow me to ‘repeat’ once more: if you want to grow exponentially, repeat the cause, not the effect.

Further Reading

Difference & Repetition, Gilles Deleuze

Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore

Becoming Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

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psychology and philosophy student turned startup developer

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Angela Lee

Angela Lee

psychology and philosophy student turned startup developer

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