Bliss: Failing to Pivot for Ideology

Note: This post was caused by listening to an interesting science podcast while thinking about the theories of startups, and the connection might seem a bit odd. Still, I think there is something to be learnt here. End note.

I recently listened to the episode on Bliss, by the Radiolab podcast. As always, Radiolab manages to take a theme and connect all kinds of things to it. In this case, bliss as in happiness turned into Bliss, the man, and his invention of Symbolics. Symbolics was an attempt to create a rational language based on symbols that would not allow the manipulation of human opinion or feeling like regular languages do. It was an attempt to create an antidote to the manipulations of dictators, tricksters, and populists (Bliss himself had been briefly interned in a pre-war German concentration camp, so he definitely knew what words could do). He designed a symbolic writing scheme that was intended to only communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously and with no room for demagogery and oratory. In the end, nobody wanted to use the language for its original purpose.

However… it turned out to be very useful for communicating with children with certain types of handicaps. This use was pioneered by a nurse in Canada, and she reached out to Bliss to thank him for his great invention and the joy it brought to the children. She also found that it was a great way to help the children learn regular English or French. The Blissymbolics were being used to bridge into a regular language, not as a permanent communications method on its won.

At this point, we have a classic “pivot” moment for Blissymbolics. Think of this as a startup. Bliss has discovered that the original idea for what to do with the symbolic language does not seem to work. But there is a new adjacent area where there is real utility and a great chance of success. Any startup theorists knows what to do: Pivot – stay grounded where you are, but change direction.

Charles Bliss did not pivot.

Instead he hated the idea, since it went counter to all that he wanted to do. He did not want people to use regular language, he wanted them to use his superior code. Thus, acrimony, lawsuits, and pain ensued. In the end, the conflict pretty much killed his idea as a practical tool. It is a sad story. We can either view Bliss as a stubborn man in love with his original idea who did not understand the need to change direction to be successful. Or we can view him as an idealist who did not sell out despite the lure of success, where success required violating his original idea. When looked at as a business, he clearly did the wrong thing. When looked at as an expression of art or ideology, it is less clear. Still, I think he should have been happy to help people, even if it was not quite in the way he envisioned.

For a startup, I think the story of Bliss illustrates the need to balance the love of the original idea and application with the need to accept that it might be used in unintended ways. Whether one embraces the pivot will depend on what the situation is. If it is just a different way to earn money and make people happy, do it. If it ends up being something morally challenging, maybe the pivot should not be done. In the most extreme, turning plowshares into swords might earn you money, but is it right?

Sorry for the rambling, but I think it was an interesting story.



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