Machine. Ecosystem. (6) – Kevin Kelly on the techium

Okay, so machines are simple, largely linear, and predictable, and systems are complex, adaptive and ‘dispositional’… but look a bit closer and the distinction gets blurry.

Most systems (individual people, markets, forests to name three) are combinations of sub-systems that are, at the end of the day, made up of simple units. And our machines – especially digital ones – are increasingly complex and interconnected. Even our simplest machines don’t really stand alone – they’re outgrowths of human activity, the product of networks of ideas, activities and resources that allow them to develop, grow, and – if they’re not maintained – fall into obsolescence and decay.

Kevin Kelly calls this the techium*, and describes it brilliantly in What Technology Wants:

Once [19th century economist Johann] Beckmann lowered the mask [of technology, by uniting various arts and sciences under the term technologie], our art and artifacts could be seen as an interdependent components woven into a coherent impersonal unity.

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the circulation of vehicles. No hammers without saws to cut the handles; no blades without hammers to pound the saw blades. This global-scale, circular interconnected network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, codes, calculators, sensors, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system.

When scientists began to investigate how this system functioned, they soon noticed something unusual: large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism. Networks, especially electronic networks, exhibit near-biological behaviour.

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants (amazon)

In our organisations, this way of seeing helps us to think about the machines we buy buy of the networks of activity and supply that are necessary to maintain them and run them well – a way of thinking that’s probably automatic in the manufacturing and computer industries, but comes far less naturally in the social sector.

Something as simple as buying a new computer or printer isn’t just that simple. It’s introducing a new organism into an ecosystem, and will require our teams to do the work of acclimatising and adapting to make it really useful. The more complicated or relational a technology is – social media being a prime example – the further the adaptation and unintended consequences go.

*as distinct from specific technologies

Caterina Fake: 5 Cs

If you look at all of the companies that I’ve been involved with and the investments that I’ve made, they are companies that emphasise creativity, communication, connection, collaboration and community.

Caterina Fake – Tim Ferris Show #360

Caterina Fake co-founded Flikr, where they popularised – newsfeeds, tags (which later evolved into hashtags), followers and likes. She played a key role in the development of Etsy, Kickstarter, and a many others besides.

These five Cs are values that she describes as being key to the success of her projects.

What role do they (could they, should they) play in yours, not just for you and your team, but for your partners, donors, customers, clients?

Contact

Next time you read an article, listen to a podcast, watch a program that you like – why don’t you get in touch with whoever made it?

Not just the person who was in it – the ones we normally notice – but the people who made it too. Drop them an email, or even that hand written note that you always think about but never get around to.

Why did you like it? Is there something you had a (generous, non-snarky) question about, or something (of genuine potential interest to them) that you can share?

Try it – make it a light touch. It feels funny at first but gets ever-easier. They’re a person like you, and they’ll probably reply, which will probably be fun.*

*You have permission to stop after twenty unreplied-to contact attempts.**
** To different people.

Their thing

It’s great that you have a thing – that you’re clear about it what it is and how important it is, and that you’re talking about it and taking action and enjoying it to boot. It’s great that it’s yours.

The temptation to avoid is to try to make it everybody else’s thing as well.

Trying to get people who aren’t really into your thing to play a significant role in it – as employees, implementers, sales people or evangelists – will only lead to disappointment all round.

Trying to give or sell your thing to someone who has different priorities will end in frustration and exhaustion.

Here are some ways forward:

  1. Find the people for whom this is their thing too: people who already share your vision, or one that significantly overlaps with it. Lead: say the words, ravel the network, build a tribe.
  2. Find people who have their own thing but will willingly put it in service of yours. There are passionate accountants, dedicated administrators, superb policy people, committed teachers, and fantastic IT technicians who will be delighted to do what they love in service of a good cause.
  3. Find partners for whom your thing is an integral part of theirs. At the charity I work at, our thing is teaching children to read and love reading. We do it by serving schools, charities or parents with a bigger vision – education as a whole, or community development, or raising flourishing kids – of which we provide a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The first group are rare gems. Finding them often takes consistent generative work, but it’s worth it. The right partners will bring far more energy than you spend on finding them, starting a chain reaction of possibilities and results.

You can’t live without the second group – they hold key pieces of the puzzle to making your thing a reality. Your job is to help them thrive and flourish doing their thing, as a subset of yours. They’re also the people who will get the most exposure to your vision, values and culture – by playing to their strengths, putting them to work with their thing, you make it much more likely that they’ll start to own yours.

The third group are your clients or donors or customers. They – or the people they serve – are why you’re here in the first place. Always as a leader, you’re a person serving people who serve people.*

*This is vintage Tom Peters

Iqbal Quadir: connectivity is productivity

Another way of looking at networks from Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameen Phone and entrepreneur against poverty:

One day in 1993 [while working at an investment bank] I was working with three or four people and our computer network was connected, and we were more productive, we didn’t have to exchange floppy disks … and we could update each other more frequently. But one time it [the network ] broke down … and while I was waiting for someone to come and fix it, and during that time I remembered a time in 1971, in Bangladesh [where I grew up]…

… One time my other asked me to get some medicine for a younger sibling, some ten kilometers away, so I walked all morning to get there, and when I got there the medicine man wasn’t there, so I walked all afternoon back.

So I remembered this unproductive day when I was having another one in New York, and suddenly I put these two unproductive days side-by-side and I realised that connectivity is productivity. It’s true for a modern office, and also for any place – for an undeveloped village. Because I could have got more done if I could tell [that the medicine man wasn’t there], I was just a kid, but perhaps a productive person would have done something, if I was a fisherman I could have fished that day, instead of wasting the day just connecting with somebody. …

Today Bangladesh has 150 million people. If you waste one day per month you’ll see millions of man-months wasted in not having some kind of connectivity.

… *** …

Adam Smith said specialisation leads productivity. But how would you specialise? If I’m a fisherman and farmer, Kevin is a fisherman and farmer, how am I going to suddenly become a fisherman and Kevin become a farmer? Not until we can connect with each other. Because we must first be able to depend on each other, to be able to rely on his goods and exchange with my goods. And in order to rely on each other, we must connect with each other. So if we are neighbours, of course we can depend on each other because we connect regularly. But then, the economy is very small – just based on small neighbourhoods.

So if you must expand your economy and specialise more, you must connect in some other way – through a highway, through a river, or perhaps, through a telephone wire.

But the key point is that you must be able to connect first in order to depend on each other, and then be able to specialise and advance the economy in general.

Iqbal Quadir at the Long Now Foundation

*** At this point – about 26 minutes into the talk – Quadir tells more of the story of the founding of Grameen phone, and his analysis that underpinned his business model. In summary, he used research produced by the International Telecommunications Union suggesting that the value of adding nodes to a network is higher for countries with lower GDP – he suggests a 25x return on investment on a new phone over ten years (in terms of contribution to GDP), even before accounting for the effect of Moore’s law, which multiplies this several times over .

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.

Scrapbook: Clay Shirky, Niall Ferguson – a spot of network theory

Speaking of networks, here’s a way into network theory – a few videos from Clay Shirky that make a good introduction:

Ten Truths About Social Media

And a couple of TED talks…

Shirky on Econtalk

And finally, go here interview on Econtalk from 2008.

The blurb says…

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, talks about the economics of organizations with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. The conversation centers on Shirky’s book. Topics include Coase on the theory of the firm, the power of sharing information on the internet, the economics of altruism, and the creation of Wikipedia.

And Niall Ferguson on the Long Now

Video and audio here.

“This time is different.”

Historians: “Ha.”

“The Net is net beneficial.”

Historian Niall Ferguson: “Globalization is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. Technology meanwhile marches inexorably ahead, threatening to render most human beings redundant or immortal or both. How do we make sense of all this?”

Ferguson analyzes the structure and prospects of “Cyberia” as yet another round in the endless battle between hierarchy and networks that has wrought spasms of innovation and chaos throughout history. He examines those previous rounds (including all that was set in motion by the printing press) in light of the current paradoxes of radical networking enabled by digital technology being the engine of massive hierarchical companies (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and their equivalents in China) and exploited by populists and authoritarians around the world.

He puts the fundamental question this way: “Is our age likely to repeat the experience of the period after 1500, when the printing revolution unleashed wave after wave of revolution? Will the new networks liberate us from the shackles of the administrative state as the revolutionary networks of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries freed our ancestors from the shackles of spiritual and temporal hierarchy? Or will the established hierarchies of our time succeed more quickly than their imperial predecessors in co-opting the networks, and enlist them in their ancient vice of waging war?”

See also:

The trampoline: networks, standards and freedom

The network effect is powerful, and a source of tremendous value, and we need to understand how it works.

Networks depend on standardisation – a consistent, accepted standard for how computers talk to each other, or how all Lego bricks fit together, or how a community works – a shared language and set of expectations that make it easier to collaborate.

We need these norms – they allow us to communicate, to work together better and faster, to make assumptions, even to ignore each other in relative safety. Norms, the middle ground, are the gravity that holds us together, the board from which we spring.

And there’s the tension. Norms that are too numerous or too binding tie us down. Our instinct is to break free, but it’s a dance: without norms and standards (social-cultural, technological), we fall apart. There’s nothing to stand on, push off, be in tension with, break free from

Without springs and gravity there are no trampolines, and no difference between flying and falling.