Where’s the scene?

In the first full episode of the Broken Record podcast, Malcolm Gladwell chats to Rick Rubin about the start of his journey to becoming a record producer.

I’m piecing together fragments here – iffy chronology:

  • He loved music. Punk and hardcore on the radio. Listening to hip-hop (tapes of Mister Magic’s Rap Attack – ‘the only place that hip-hop was on the radio’) with friends at school.
  • Starts a band, ‘The Pricks’ – at some point plays punk club CBGBs, where he manufactures a brawl to get the band thrown off stage.
  • Goes to hip-hop clubs on his own – often the only white guy in the audience. ‘I didn’t really think about it – I went for the music, and while sometimes I went places where I felt like, when I would walk in, I would feel like, “Hmm, I wonder if I belong here,” but then as soon as the music would start, my relationship to the music and the rest of the audience’s relationship to the music was the same, so I felt camaraderie in terms of musical taste and fandom.” 
  • Hangs out at ‘a little teeny punk rock record store called Rat Cage records’ – where he picks up with the Beastie Boys. I’m even sure if they were the Beastie Boys yet. ‘Rat cage… actually put out the first Beastie Boys – maybe the first two – Beastie Boys singles.’
  • Tours as DJ with the Beastie Boys on Madonna’s first tour (!) – ‘The Beasties were kind of rowdy and dirty, and Madonna’s audience were 14 year old girls… not so many Beastie fans – we didn’t even have an album out.’ He’s 21 – still at New York University. Drops out of the tour with an ear infection. Mike D of the Beasties was still at high school.
  • Starts Def Jam Recordings our of his dormitory in his fourth year at NYU – partly because he wasn’t happy with how hip-hop was being recorded.  ‘Just from the fan’s point of view of wanting records that sounded like I heard at the club, I started making them.’ Records License to Ill, the Beasties’ first full album.
  • There are other bands, clubs, more cross-overs with Punk and hip-hop… he’s busy. ‘I didn’t take any classes before three in the afternoon, because I knew I wouldn’t wake up.’
  • Goes on to become one of the most influential – the most influential? – music producers of his generation. Walk This Way with Aerosmith and Run DMC (which arguably brought hip-hop truly into the mainstream) was just the start.

Rap Up

  • He loved this thing
  • He found the scene, became part of it, started to make it. Punk and hip-hop shared a big DIY ethos.
  • He put in the hours – built a body of work
  • His work is for himself as well as for others in the scene
  • He – and the Beasties – are hybrids. Jewish boys with feet in the punk and hip-hop scenes. He credits this with a lot of his success in making rich music.

Intelligences

Imagine you are in charge of developing an artificial intelligence.

Your AI has the ability to move into the world and mingle with human beings, all the while augmenting both its physical capability and its intelligence.

In time, your AI will certainly be able to perform many tasks that would help the people around it. It will be smarter, stronger, and faster than most of them.

In time, it will certainly also have the capability to kill people – tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. It will be well equipped to cause environmental destruction on a huge scale.

Would you create such an AI? What would you teach it? What would you want it to know about people and about being in the world?

Now imagine a network of such AIs, interacting, learning, gaining new abilities and changing the world.

Now look at our children.

Hybrids (4): Intersections and you

This is the fourth of a series on the role of hybrids in innovation. This is where I put the ideas of the previous posts to work using the principle of ‘combinatorial innovation’ to look for fertile soil for cross-breeds between my work in educational development and other areas.

Translation and Contextualisation

In a way, this whole post is about these two things. Can you take information – ideas, tools and resources – and make them useful and accessible in a new place? Where do you have the local knowledge – local to place, or a set of people, or a field of activity – that is needed so that things from another place can be useful to others?

Open standards

The worldwide web is possible because of a shared, consensual, non-propriety and completely open agreement about how to mark up text for display in your computer’s web browser (HTML).

Could an open standard help people and products to work together in your industry? Could you be the one to start writing and popularising it?

I wonder if education in Indonesia could benefit from a set of open standards:

  • For desirable outcomes for education as a whole
  • For standards and competencies at different stages of children (and adults’) development in different subjects (e.g. literacy, mathematics) that could allow ‘interoperability’ between educational resources made by different groups
  • For what makes a good lesson, curriculum, or resource (e.g. suggested standards to guide writers of children’s books)
  • For how to design the above
  • For how to train teachers to use the above

I’ve got lots of questions about how far consensus can go on these things, but I think there’s a lot of potential.

Further Reading

Open source

More than 85% of the world’s smartphones run on the Android operating system. Android is a version of Linux, a free operating system that is developed by a community of volunteers and professionals across the world. Being open source means that not only is the software free to use, but the source code – the bits of computer program used to make Android – are available to all to study, edit and upgrade. Volunteers gain so much from the system, that when they improve a piece of the software (often to solve a problem that they face), they’re happy to feed the improvements back into it, creating more value for everyone in the process.

Can you ‘open source’ all or part of what you do, creating value for everyone in the process?

Digital

Perhaps this should have been first on the list. What do cheaper computing, cheaper data and storage, cheaper video, cheaper sensors of all sorts – mean to you? What would it mean if they became free – because relatively, they are becoming so.

What do you need to know, what skills do you need to develop, so you can make the most of these, and make them useful to others?

Physical

What’s getting faster, cheaper, easier to use? For example…

  • Physically transporting goods from one place to another in a world of driverless cars and maybe, drones
  • Electronic products
  • Print-on-demand

Virtual

What can you do online – maybe even automatically – that previously had to be done in person?

Actual

In a world where we can do so many things online, what are the things that really are better when we’re together in person? Why are they better in person, and how can we make them better still?

AI

Of course AI. I know almost nothing about it, but finding the people a level or two above me is high on the list. It might not be for you, but make sure that you know that for a fact.

Likewise blockchain.

Information. Architecture?

A lot of these things come down to information being more abundant, and more accessible than ever before. Is there value in looking deeply at how your field hangs together, and how it intersects with other fields, and clarifying things – for you and everyone else?

This is fun – this video with Peter Morville is a decent place to start.

Tools and Howtos

Can you make and share tools to help other people do what you do? Can you teach people how to use them?

Thanks to…

It goes without saying that Kevin Kelly, Tim O’Reilly – and everyone mentioned in my earlier WTF post are the major sources of these ideas.

Hybrids (3): when ideas breed

Kevin Kelly has a lot to say about innovation as combination. Here’s a good riff:

Most new ideas and new inventions are disjointed ideas merged. Innovations in the design of clocks inspired better windmills, furnaces engineered to brew beer turned out to be useful to the iron industry, mechanisms invented for organ-making were applied to looms, and mechanisms in looms became computer software.

“In technology, combinatorial evolution is foremost, and routine,” says economist Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology. “Many of a technologies parts are shared by other technologies, so a great deal of development happens automatically as components improve in other uses ‘outside’ the host technology.”

These combinations are like mating. They produce a hereditary tree of ancestral technologies. Just as in Darwinian evolution, tiny improvements are rewarded with more copies, so that innovations spread steadily through the population. Older ideas merge and hatch idea’-lings.

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

More from Mill

More from Mill on diversity (see Hybrids). It’s a longer quotation than usual, but it’s great.

In short: diversity and mixing allow new “good things, which did not before exist.” – hybrids.

It will not be denied by anybody, that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilization should not die out, as in the Byzantine Empire. Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people–less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character. If from timidity they consent to be forced into one of these moulds, and to let all that part of themselves which cannot expand under the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little the better for their genius. If they are of a strong character, and break their fetters they become a mark for the society which has not succeeded in reducing them to common-place, to point at with solemn warning as “wild,” “erratic,” and the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, chapter 3.

Hybrids (2): combinations and connections

New ideas and technologies are often hybrids. Sometimes we take quantum leaps and invent entirely new technologies, but more often they seem to emerge at the intersection of existing ideas, tools or ways of doing things.

Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution is full of examples of how this happened by accident and design throughout the evolution of modern computers.

Tim O’Reilly has called this ‘combinatorial innovation’. Here’s Rob Reid describing it in an interview with O’Reilly:

Combinatorial innovation is taking completely disparate technologies that have arisen, and weaving them together in ways that create tremendous and unanticipated new things which really magnify what society’s gaining from those new technologies.

So you might say with Uber and Lyft, we’ve suddenly all got GPS in our pockets, for reasons that have nothing to do with ride handling, and we’ve got this mobile payment system that Braintree or Stripe or whoever created for completely unrelated reasons, and suddenly they combine into something society shifting that no-one saw coming – ride sharing, in this case.

You almost get amazing things for free that used to be impossible or wildly expensive by coupling together a few other new things that just kind of happened to be lying around, so to speak. And maybe these new things can become an ingredient to something even more amazing, which may create a lot more jobs and social good.

I think the example you use with Uber and Lyft, is that even in a worse case scenario from a jobs standpoint with self-driving cars… for example… a lot of jobs will be displaced… but the cost of a ride might also come down by 80%. So while there’s a lot of economic dislocation , a whole realm of new services can arise that are based on the sudden, extraordinary affordability and ubiquity of transportation, much as the abundance and cheapness of wool [in the industrial revolution] led to the rise of fashion. The world laid off a lot of weavers, but through combinatorial innovation a whole slew of opportunities arose.

Rob Reid, talking about the ideas of Tim O’Reilly on his After Hours podcase

Just afterwards, O’Reilly said this.

Hybrids (1)

By most accounts, hybridity is a good thing. Cross breeding animals and plants can result in stronger, healthier populations.

John Stuart Mill argued that diversity of ideas makes us societies stronger too. 

That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half-truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognizing all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men’s modes of action, not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, chapter 3.