Schumpeter, don’t take my Kodachrome away

19 01 2012

There’s nothing particularly exotic about bankruptcy. Untold multitudes of individuals, small businesses, and corporations undergo the process during a prosperous year–let alone the period of borderline malaise we are enduring at the present.

Yet when Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this Thursday, people took notice.

Some brands, like Kodak, have become a part of our national identity. We don’t want to see them disappear.

Thanks, Paul, for forever planting this aged photographic medium in my mind

Perhaps Kodak can beat the odds and emerge from its Chapter 11 proceedings leaner, meaner, and more ready than ever to prosper in the digital age. Perhaps Kodak will die, leaving its profitable divisions to be snapped up by competitors.

No matter the outcome, we should set aside our collective attachment to an iconic brand long enough to behold the process of creative destruction in action.

To be sure, the phrase “creative destruction” sounds scary–especially to Kodak’s employees, who may soon find themselves back on the job market. But the concept, popularized by the Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter, explains the ongoing process of economic and technological progress.

Yes, there are going to be dislocations when a superior technology enters the market–that’s the “destruction” part–but only because that creative new technology improves the lives of the consumers who decide to purchase it.

How many of us lament the disappearance of the typewriter? The telegraph? The horseshoe industry? The decline and fall of Kodak is fundamentally no different.

The power of the market did take our Kodachrome away (and may yet bury the Kodak brand entirely), but only because entrepreneurs offered consumers better alternatives. The George Eastmans of the past were not singular figures; a new generation of technological and entrepreneurial pioneers has developed products that improve our lives despite the ever-increasing number of hurdles big government has placed in its path.

Today, even relatively disposable smartphones contain cameras that would have cost thousands of dollars a decade ago. There are downloadable apps designed give your cutting-edge digital photos a filmlike glow. You can even use the built-in mp3 player to listen to Paul Simon as you snap away.

We may have lost a few household brand names on the road from Brownie to iPhone, but even the most conscientious consumer has enjoyed unimaginable benefits as a result of the journey.

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