Top critical review
The Origin of the Specious
18 April 2018
It looks like I may have to buck a trend best on the reviews to date .
I really like Goodwin. His work is often interesting and he seems like a nice person. I wanted to, however, read this book with an objective hat on, and I'm afraid I'm not altogether impressed. Which is a deep shame because I was looking forward to reading this.
Goodwin beseeches us at the opening to ask questions and keep asking them, the most important being 'Why'. So the short version of this review will be a series of just those questions:
Why does someone who's worked his entire life in media agencies feel qualified to make sweeping generalisations about 'disruption' and the future of anything?
Why does this person not bring more of his work into the book?
Why are there so many generic platitudes about embracing change, being more agile or thinking different?
Why does Goodwin continually caveat his advice and observations with 'seems like', 'feels like' and 'could be' despite rounding off the book with such certain predictions about the future?
Why is someone who begs for optimism so pessimistic?
Why are his examples so often just Uber, Amazon, Airbnb and Tesla?
Why does he imagine that clear, ongoing, commercial failures are the future of business?
Why does he recommend that startups challenge legality when the laws they challenge are mostly there for the benefit of the consumer?
Why is there no deeper analysis of anything? Could it be that the unnamed Peruvian luxury hotel chain has good reasons for not stocking the latest chargers for Goodwin's iPhone?
I could go on. It's good to ask why. But the final 'why' you should ask yourself is: "Why should I buy this book?". If you feel that it's because you'll learn enough about the future of disruption or the ways of the world, then this book is not for you. If you're looking for a decent analysis of the thoughts of other thinkers in the field, then - again - it's not for you. If you're looking for a summary of bits and pieces of thought found on blogs and Business Insider with some tepid exposition and anecdoate, then you could do worse with your tenner.
If we'd like to go a little deeper into the flaws of Goodwin's argument and writing:
1) Data - he loudly disclaims the use of data. Convenient, because his exposition relies on nearly no data. It's also deeply problematic because his forecasts, where remotely interesting, are difficult to take seriously. Because the data he does rely on is personal experience. And Goodwin's personal experience is that of a wealthy white male executive travelling to luxury hotels in First Class cabins. This means his writing is littered with bias.
2) Misunderstanding - as a result of his flimsy attitude towards data, he misinterprets the actions of several of his heroes. Jobs, Ma, Bezos - they *all* relied on data. Goodwin's absolutely right to have a sceptical attitude towards the presentation of data but that involves the hard work of dealing with logical argument. Much easier to do away with data and state that the future is robots. Or if companies don't change, they die.
3) Lack of practical knowledge - Goodwin routinely asks 'what if Heathrow was to be built today' or 'what if major communications had to be built from scratch'. Potentially extraordinary questions that could lead to some really interesting conversations. Unfortunately his conclusions and thoughts about what are brave centre around Hyperloop and the ability for a $50,000 app to replace $10bn infrastructure. Yes, that is not an exaggeration. This is something Goodwin actually believes.
4) Originality and insight - Goodwin likes the odd paraphrased quote, with multiple possible attributions, so here's one:
'This book was both original and interesting. Unfortunately, the interesting parts were not original, nor the original parts interesting' - Dr Samual Johnson, Word Enthusiast
So what are those bits lacking originality or insight?
'It's time to ask the hard questions'
'Change is a threat'
'Change is underestimated'
'It's time to focus on people'
'Companies now need to look further ahead, to try to be not just agile but predictive, be comfortable being uncomfortable...'
'We are in the age of peak complexity'
'The world hasn't changed as much as we like to think it has'
'People buy solutions, not technologies'
'We make robots that can do bricklaying, but shouldn't we be thinking of entirely new construction methods'
'Unleashing the power of the paradigm shift' (note: this is particularly egregious)
'Maximise outcomes, don't minimise risk'
'A disease of the modern age is the need to support arguments with data.'
'[For back pain] I have to meet chiropractors, physiotherapists, neurosurgeons...' - if your starting point is a chiropractor, it's starting to explain a lot.
It goes on. Sadly what tis book amounts to is a hodgepodge of bits he's read and observed. Some of it is interesting but it's mostly disappointingly vapid. At the end of the book you'll find yourself wondering what, exactly, you might have learned. Your business needs to change to adapt to the future? Startups can be a threat? We should design around humans? Here's hoping that he has better luck with his next book.