Kevin Kelly – what is technology?

Not just shiny new stuff

It was clear (at least to me) that technology was an extension of natural life, but in what ways was it different from nature? (Computers and DNA share something essential, but a Mac-Book is not the same as a sunflower.) It was also clear that technology springs from human minds, but it what way are the products of our minds (even cognitive products like artificial intelligences) different from our minds themselves? Is technology human or nonhuman?

We tend to think of technology as shiny tools and gadgets. Even if we acknowledge that technology can exist in disembodied form, such as software, we tend not to include in this category paintings, literature, music, dance, poetry and the arts in general. But we should. If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as technology (the computer code for a web page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, or enable future inventions.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

We can’t separate out the multiple overlapping technologies responsible for a Lord of the Rings movie. The literary rendering of the original novel is as much an invention as the digital rendering of its fantastical creatures. Both are useful works of the human imagination. Both influence audiences powerfully. Both are technological.

Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants (amazon)

If you haven’t read any of Kevin Kelly’s writing, check out New Rules for the New Economy (where in 1998 – the year Google was founded and seven years before Facebook) he set out most of the trends of the new ‘connection’ economy. Or read the opening chapter of What Technology Wants on Kindle and see if it tempts you.

W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation

The idea … that we have is that there’s some genius in an attic… cooking up technology and coming up with inventions.

But it started to become clear to me having looked in detail at some inventions is that technologies in a way come out of other technologies. If you take any individual technology, say like a computer in the 1940s, it was made possible by having vacuum tubes, by having relay systems, by having very primitive memory systems… All of those things existed already.

So it seemed to me that technology’s evolved by people not so much discovering something new or discovering, but by putting together different Lego blocks so to speak in a new way. Once something’s been put together, like say a radio circuit for transmitting radio waves, it can be thrown back in the Lego set. And occasionally then some of the new combinations would get a name and be tossed back in.

Things like gene sequencing were put together from existing molecular biology technologies and then that becomes a component in yet other technologies…

W. Brian Arthur – a16z podcast

What’s already out there that you could combine to do something in a new way?

How do you keep an eye out for new Lego?

What do you make that you could throw into the Lego set for others?

Podcast recommendation: Marc Andreesen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

I’ve already shared an extract from this episode about systems thinking here, but the whole interview is fascinating and everyone I’ve recommended it to has thanked me for it.

Marc Andressen more-or-less invented the web-browser as we know it and made Netscape (the biggest internet browser of its day, which was sold for a profit), which seeded the development of Mozilla Firefox, which you might be using right now. These days he’s a really influential venture capitalist, a quick (and very smart) thinker and fast talker.

This interview is full of useful and interesting gems, and Brian Koppelman does a great job of pulling out some interesting applications to art and pop culture. Apart from systems thinking, highlights (to be unpacked in future) include:

  • The importance of networks and scenes (‘scenius’) in fostering and spreading innovation
  • How to make your way, taking as a given that many things of life are unfair or wrong
  • The relative value of ideas versus work
  • Marketing, sales, and how to get your ideas in front of people
  • The Test – the ability to get a ‘warm referral’ to investors or key players not as cronyism but as an excellent test of the qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur

Highly recommend.

You can listen to the episode here, download it here or read the transcript here.

Strategy: from ideas to value propositions to business models

Ideas are easy. Ideas are free, they’re everywhere. The hard thing is turning ideas into value propositions that customers want, and business models that can scale.

How many projects do I need to invest in to create the next growth engine?

It turns out, you’d actually need to invest in 250 projects. You start with small bets first, and then gradually you filter out those ideas that don’t work, not based on a beautiful powerpoint presentation but based on evidence from the market. And gradually you’ll get to those that win. So the big lesson here is that you can’t pick the winners. You need to invest in “the losers”.

Where do I take this data from? … If you look at early stage venture investment, which is a great proxy, 65 percent of all ideas fail. 25 percent return a little bit of capital, so you invest 100 you may get 500 back. So where do the outliers come from? It’s from a small number … it’s basically four out of a thousand, or one out of 250 [that provide massive returns].

So if you want growth to happen, you need to create the playground, the boundaries, for these ideas to emerge. You need to allow people to experiment and have projects in parallel, so that you can win. That’s what strategy is about: creating the conditions for ideas to emerge. It’s not “hey this is a good idea, we make a big bet, and we execute.”

There are only a few companies in the world that have created these conditions, and it’s not a miracle or a coincidence that Amazon has grown so quickly, because when you have a leader who says “Amazon is the best place in the world to fail” and he admits that “invention and failure are inseperable twins,” you have a completely different culture for those ideas to emerge.

Alex OsterwalderGlobal Peter Drucker Forum 2018

The new possible

My sister (let’s call her Sharky) bought me a book for Christmas.

Sharky lives in Argentina.

She bought the book from a shop in the UK.

I’m on holiday in a remote part of Indonesia.

She bought the book, told me about it, and I was reading it, in less than ten minutes.

This is the new reality – actually, not even that new anymore. Any information product (book, film, music, software, design) can go anywhere, in effectively no time.

The new possible consists of the things that this reality enables – not just instant access to information products, but information to go into products (3d printing designs, specifications) or for the delivery of products and services (your exact requirements or preferences, your real-time location, your purchase history, your credit rating).

What becomes possible in your field when the information is so relevant and so available, when the transaction becomes so fast, so frictionless?

AirBnB, and Uber are cannonical examples of the new possible, to which I’d add the fact that this year, Sharky bought me a Christmas present.

Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading

… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.

Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?

Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.

Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.

And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.

All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.

These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable

On making stuff: that Steve Jobs quote

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Steve Jobs

Anything yet: never a better time

When should you start?

The internet feels saturated with apps, platforms, devices, and more than enough content to demand our attention for the next million years. Even if you could manage to squeeze in another tiny innovation, who would notice it among our miraculous abundance?

But, but… here is the thing. In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet! The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. It is only becoming. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that point look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2050 were not invented until after 2016. People in the future will look at their holodecks and wearable virtual reality contact lenses and downloadable avatars and AI interfaces and say, “Oh, you didn’t really have the internet” – or whatever they’ll call it – “back then.”

And they’d be right. Because from our perspective now, the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us. All this miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-on-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit – the equivalent of the dot-com names of 1984.

Because here is another thing the graybeards in 2050 will tell you – Can you imagine how awesome it would be to be an innovator in 2016? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category and add some AI to it, put it in the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the whole of history to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh, to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. But what’s coming will be different, beyond, and other. The things we will make will be constantly, relentlessly becoming something else. And the coolest stuff of all has not been invented yet.

Today truly is a wide-open frontier. We are all becoming. It is the best time ever in human history to begin.

You are not too late.

Kevin Kelly – The Inevitable – from chapter 1: Becoming

Further reading:

GNU-GPL – a base of code

Richard Stallman famously wrote the GNU GPL, which is a license based on copy-left, not copyright. His position is the freedom to work with computers and work with software and work with software is hindered by copyright.

That in fact these are useful tools, and there are people who want to make useful tools and remix the useful tools of people who came before. Everything you use in the internet – that website that you visited that’s running on Apache, that email protocol, you’re able to do it because so many other entities were able to share these ideas.

So the way copy-left works is that if you use software that has a GPL license to make your software work better, it infects your software, and you also have to use the GPL license.

So if it works right, it will eat the world. So as the core of software in GNU gets bigger and deeper, it becomes more and more irresistible to use it. But as you use it the software you add to it also becomes part of that corpus.

And if enough people contribute to it, what we’ll end up with is an open, inspectable, improvable base of code that gives us a toolset for weaving together the culture we want to be part of.

Seth Godin Akimbo, November 21 2018 – Intellectual Property

An open, inspectable, improvable base of code.

For software.

For tools for making software.

How about for educational outcomes? For assessments?

For a set of tools and resources for running an organisation?

Stan Lee (1922-2018) – What If?

The exact cover of the Marvel What If that Dave’s brother kept in a plastic folder

Stan Lee was brilliant and prolific.

We know him for Spiderman, the X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther… for being the driving force behind Marvel Comics, now a multi-billion dollar, multi-media juggernaut.

It’s less well known that he started in the comics industry in 1939, aged seventeen, as a general dogsbody, lunch-fetcher and inkwell filler at Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel).

Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.

By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.

He was forty-one years old.

The rest is history.

What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?

Some takeaways: