Ease of substitution

The ease with which a product can be substituted by the customer is directly related to its value. Commodity products are easier to replace and thus of lower value. Intellectual products, on the other hand, are products of the mind—they can't be performed automatically with robotic hands. In order to be replaced, there need to be mechanisms to copy the experience and thought process of a person, which is very unlikely as we are all subject to very different influences. We don't know how easy it is to replace a product that is intangible, one that hasn't been projected into something visible yet. So we very often value the product only by what we can see on the surface. This means that software will have almost no value if it's not already working, even if millions and years could have been spent on its development. Nothing produced doesn't have to be substituted for anything, at least so we seem to think. As a result only the “portfolio” is important and the more extensive one, the better. And because this portfolio is visible, it's easy for others to copy, so the client can find a reason to substitute a first-class provider with a mediocre one. It's unfortunate that thriving this way is often a game of whose tricks will be perceived as most legitimate.

But how do we decide what can be substituted and what not? Is substitution really so easy or just others want us to believe so? How easy is it to find a substitute for a unique software product like WordPress? How easy is it to replace C#, Java or Haskell as programming languages? How easy is it to substitute an original painting by Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dali? Is the painting just the canvas or is there something more to it? How easy is it to replace the tirelessness of Steve Jobs? How easy is it to replace the teachings of Jim Rohn? How easy is it to replace the work of Dr. Stephen Covey?

It seems that substitution has its limits, but we refuse to admit them. Convincing people that they can be replaced by others who work longer, don't need to rest or lunch, and live happily just with a salary that covers their basic cost of living is just an attempt to make people feel negligible and small, so that one can feel large enough. It's by allowing such treatment that they become just a pawn in the pool of unconditional believers. It's surprising how many people are ready to admit that they are like others.

If we think that substitutions are easy, we would frequently change our partner in life, especially if we view it mostly as a combination of hands, legs, body and head. We wouldn't invest time to explore more deeply what makes this person special if all we thought of is that we could easily move to the next one after an initial conflict. Such substitution is quite harmful and promotes lower levels of engagement and trust between the people in a society.

I think that full substitution is impossible to achieve, despite what many people already claim to have achieved. What can be substituted are certain aspects of the work, just to the extent of mimicry. This is how chameleons survive.

It's probably a good practice to frequently ask ourselves if we are doing something truly special that others won't find substitute for and if the robots of the future won't be able to copy it automatically.

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