Technology: ubiquity changes everything

The fiercest critics of technology still focus on the ephemeral have-and-have-not divide, but that flimsy border is a distraction. The significant threshold of technological development lies at the boundary between commonplace and ubiquity, between the “have-laters” and the “all have.”

When critics asked us champions of the internet what we were going to do about the digital divide and I said “nothing,” I added a challenge: “If you want to worry about something, don’t worry about the folks who are currently offline. They’ll stampede on faster than you think. Instead you should worry about what we are going to do when everyone is online. When the internet has six billion people, and they are all e-mailing at once, when no one is disconnected and always on day and night, when everything is digital and nothing offline, when the internet is ubiquitous. That will produce unintended consequences worth worrying about.”

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants

.

Some questions around ubiquity:

What happens when everyone can read?

When everyone is living longer?

When everyone consumes like I do?

When everyone uses google/facebook/UBER/airbnb?

When everyone moves to the city?

If everyone acts this way?**

A caveat

The caveat is that everyone never means everyone.

What happens to those last people who aren’t connected – the ones who desperately want to be, and those who desperately don’t?

What happens to the people left behind?

If everyone is – is it okay if you’re not?

.

** Hat-tip: Immanuel Kant ***

*** with special thanks to WordPress’s autocorrect for suggesting “Semi-Annual Kant” as an alternative.

Feedback (positive)

When I was a kid, my cousin had a tape-recorder just like this one – it had a microphone with a yellow sponge. Putting the microphone in a nearby (empty) pot produced this wonderful echoey noise that grew to a delightful – to my ears – whining whistle.

The whine grew slowly at first, but the louder it got, the faster it grew before maxing out, ending when you took mic back out (you could hold it constant by holding the mic just at the mouth of the pot) or when an irritated parent had had enough.

Here’s a diagram of what’s happening:

(wikipedia)

There a lot of ways this happens in the rest of life too, for good and bad:

  • The virtuous circle of a team doing better work, getting better customers, who ask them to do better work, leading to more opportunities…
  • Technological innovation
  • Investment, reinvestment and compound interest
  • Population growth
  • Environmental destruction
  • Cattle stampedes
  • Bad sleep, leading to bad decisions and more work, leading to worse sleep…

Feedback loops come with a caveat:

Positive feedback tends to cause system instability. When the loop gain is positive and above 1, there will typically be exponential growth, increasing oscillationschaotic behavior or other divergences from equilibrium. System parameters will typically accelerate towards extreme values, which may damage or destroy the system, or may end with the system latched into a new stable state.

Wikipedia

Progressive. Conservative.

We all have change that we’d like to see in the world.

There are things we’d like to abolish. There are things we’d like to see start or grow, and take their rightful place in our culture.

We’re all progressive – maybe even radicals.

And we’re all conservatives too.

There are things we want to protect, changes we want to prevent, or reverse.

It’s a shame that we can’t agree on what these things are. That is to say, it’s a shame that other people don’t agree with what I think those things are.

You know, the right things.

Family and community, taking care of people, responsibility, freedom, goodness.

Things like that.

Today’s status quo

On the other hand, doing something a particular way because that’s what everyone else does – or because it’s how it’s always been done – is a recipe for stagnation and frustration.

And if you’re doing it for a place in today’s status quo, you might be heading for disappointment: tomorrow, the status quo will have moved on, and what you did might not mean what you thought it did.

Here’s Seth Godin:

Are you making these choices simply because of today’s status quo, knowing that tomorrow the status quo won’t even be what it is today?

Seth Godin – Akimbo – The Wedding Industrial Complex

Conservatism and the status quo

Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek make good arguments for leaning towards conservatism (small c).

For all its problems, the relatively stable equilibrium we live in is a blessing. It depends on a lot of intertwingled factors. It wasn’t planned or made: it evolved and accrued.

The faster the world changes, the more valuable stable touchstones of culture, family, relationship become.

Which parts are of the social structure are held up by the piece you’re pulling away at? Is it a keystone?

Who else depends on the type of person you’re disrupting? Are they a keystone species?

Look before you leap.

** Russ Roberts‘ Econtalk is a great place to go to hear a well-intentioned person working from this point of view.

Anything yet: the hockey stick

Sustainable growth?

I was going to call this ‘the exponential function’, but I didn’t want to put you off.

This is a key force behind much of Anything Yet: if things grow steadily (say, at the rate of few percent per year) and continue to grow at that rate, it doesn’t take long for that growth to become enormous – we might say overwhelming, and we should also say all-consuming.

The classic line about this is from Dr Albert Bartlett,  Manhattan Project alumni and all-round interesting guy:

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as that, but he makes an important point. Here are a couple of great introductions to the idea.

The first is from Chris Martenson’Crash Course:

I might come back to The Crash Course – the Incidental Economist a review expressing some caveats I have about it here.

The second is Albert Bartlett himself with a more involved but really helpful explanation:

You can’t stay

As you start working for change, seeking success in whatever terms you define it, it’s worth asking yourself what you’re willing to give up to get it.

Change – at what cost, and to who?

You’re leaving the village behind, setting off to make your fortune – and it won’t be the same village when you get back, if you come back at all.

‘At what cost’ is a great question.

The flipside, of course, is that it wouldn’t be the same village if you stayed. Each day, day by day: a different you; a different they; a different village.

You can’t stay.

Or rather: you can never be here again. Not with these people, not quite like this.

Stay or go, you’re always leaving this village behind.

Hinterland

Cities can’t exist without a hinterland – the ‘land behind’ and around them that supports the city, provides people, resources, a place for the products of the city – for good and bad – to flow out to, a place for the city to grow into.

Ideas need a hinterland too – a wider landscape they emerge from, draw on, connect to. The healthier, wider, more varied the hinterland, the more connections the idea has to wider realities, the richer, more robust, more joyful and life giving the idea.

People, organisations and companies need hinterlands too – the ‘wrapper’ of other humans and groups and the spaces we live in. Often, this hinterland – these people and places – are really the main point.

So each day we have a choice: are we bringing life to our hinterland, enriching the soil we grow from, or are we growing rich by exploiting it?

Seeds

Try thinking about your words and actions as seeds. 

One way to do this is to start at the end. Ask yourself “What kind of plant do I want to grow?” And try to plant the right seed in the right soil for it to flourish.

The other way round is to think about means: “If I do this, what is it the seed of? What kind of plant will grow from it, and where?”

This applies to almost everything – relationships, health, habits of thought, what we read, how we spend our time, who we spend it with, what we pursue, places we go, the motivations we allow ourselves to follow.

What seeds do you plant most often?

What could you plant more of?

What might you need to uproot?

Who are you planting for?

What’s left behind when you’re gone?

As we build our lives, organisations, communities – as we build a society – what plants will flourish best together, bringing life?

I love the parable of the man who plants a mustard seed, which “though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”*

You can’t see the future, but you have a pretty good idea of what sort of garden you want to live in, and a pretty good idea of what seeds you’ll need to plant. Sow those.

.

*No, I don’t think that mustard is the smallest seed or the largest plant either.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 6: Scale is not a Reward (2)

This is the sixth-and-half post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Scale and the Free Prize Inside

We left Rule 6 a little watered down: “Scale carefully and find the size that works for your organisation”.

There’s a type of scaling, though, that is a reward: when scaling in a particular way means that you make a free prize for someone (see also here).

There might be a scale at which you are able to give something to your customers (or to people who are not yet your customers – maybe even people who never will be your customers) at no real cost to you. Is there something you own that you can sell cheaply and easily – or give away – that adds tremendous value to them? Could you:

  • Share a resource or planning tool?
  • Grow big enough that you can offer a useful physical space to the community?
  • Thicken the network by connecting different groups of your users so that they can create value for each other – or for someone else entirely? How big does your network need to be to be useful?

If you’re working more in service of a vision (that is, in service of people) than profit, there is more than likely an asset of some kind that you already own that you can share with others.

You might also create a free-prize for your organisation by selling the asset in some way. This isn’t free, but if it allows you to serve more people in a way that creates value for everyone and pays for itself then it’s prizes all round. 

Or you might charge a litlte more, covering some of your overheads at no cost to yourself (prize for you) and allow you to serve more effectively and sustainably elsewhere (prize for the community).

The Business Model Canvas is a great tool for identifying assets that you could turn into prizes…