Access to an unlimited world of information is a powerful augmentation of human capability, but it still has prerequisites. Before she could make an exquisite dessert by watching a YouTube video, my stepdaughter had to know how to use an iPad. She had to know how to search on YouTube. She had to know that a world of content was there for the taking. At O’Reilly, we call this structural literacy.
Users without structural literacy about how to use computers struggle to use them. They learn by rote. Going from an iPhone to Android, or the reverse, or from PC to Mac, or even from one version of software to another, is difficult for them. These same people have no trouble getting into a strange car and orientating themselves. “Where is that darned lever to open the gas cap?” they ask. They know it’s got to be there somewhere. Someone with structural literacy knows what to look for. They have a functional map of how things ought to work. Those lacking that map are helpless.
The level and type of structural literacy required differs with the type of work you do. Today’s startups, increasingly embedding software and services into devices, require foundational skills in electrical and mechanical engineering, and even “trade” skills such as soldering… Teachers are far more effective if they are broadly familiar with the culture and context of their students.Tim O’Reilly – WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us
Some thoughts from other people about this as a start. Thanks to DB for the prompt!
From Seth Godin
So, how to protect your ideas in a world where ideas spread?
Instead, spread them. Build a reputation as someone who creates great ideas, sometimes on demand. Or as someone who can manipulate or build on your ideas better than a copycat can. Or use your ideas to earn a permission asset so you can build a relationship with people who are interested. Focus on being the best tailor with the sharpest scissors, not the litigant who sues any tailor who deigns to use a pair of scissors.
This an interesting case of tragedy and solution in the creative commons.
Copyright is not an absolute. Potato chips are absolute.
In his influential paper on fair use, Judge Pierre N. Leval wrote, “Factor One is the soul of fair use.” Stanford’s Fair Use Center asks, “Has the material you have taken from the original work been transformed by adding new expression or meaning? Was value added to the original by creating new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings?”Andy Baio – Waxy.org
Lesson 1: Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy…
At O’Reilly, we have published ebooks DRM-free for the better part of two decades. We’ve watched the growth of this market from its halting early stages to its robust growth today. More than half of our ebook sales now come from overseas, in markets we were completely unable to serve in print. While our books appear widely on unauthorized download sites, our legitimate sales are exploding. The greatest force in reporting unauthorized copies to us is our customers, who value what we do and want us to succeed. Yes, there is piracy, but our embrace of the internet’s unparalleled ability to reach new customers “though it may not be perfect still secures to authors more money than any other system that can be devised.”
The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free.
When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.
Further reading at techdirt.
*I’ll add to this list periodically.
Here’s the intuition:
- New technologies – including ideas, techniques and ways of thinking, as well as physical tools – very often come from the creative recombination* of old technologies
- There are more people in the world than ever before, and more of these people – an increasingly diverse set of people – have access to more technologies than ever before
- These same people are networked to more people than ever before. Each person who joins the network increases the number of potential connections – and the value of the network – exponentially.
- So we have more ideas mixing in a wider range of minds and environments than ever before, and far more potential for good ideas to be realised and to spread…
- … and as of about now, only about half of the world’s population is online.
- It takes longer than we think – perhaps a generation – for new technologies to really embed and make a noticeable difference.
- Conclusion: it might feel like we’re on the far side of the digital revolution – that computers have happened, the internet has happened, the world has changed – but it’s only just beginning.
We haven’t seen anything yet.
*: I first noticed this phrase in Tim O’Reilly‘s WTF: What’s the Future? but the idea runs through Walter Isaacson‘s The Innovators and Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants to name a few. See WtF: Technology and You for more references.
Most businesses that prosper create value for their communities and their customers as well as themselves, and the most successful businesses do so in part by creating a self-reinforcing value loop with and for others. They build a platform on which people who don’t work directly for them can build their own dreams.Tim O’Reilly, WTF?
This is a key to building a fruitful and sustainable business or charity – be part of your partners’ success story.
Make yourself so useful that they can’t imagine doing it without you, and are eager to pay for what you do.
Align your interests so that their success is your success.
Be such a source of good in your community that they cheer you on.
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?
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.
- The Cathedral and the Bazaar – a key essay on the open source movement
- I’ve written more about this (and open source, below) in the article “Reading the Present, Writing the Future” – see page 6.
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?
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?
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
What can you do online – maybe even automatically – that previously had to be done in person?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
The possibilities of the future are often lying latent in the field of our vision. We can’t see them… And then suddenly we do, and we re-write the world.
On the After On podcast
One way of seeing the future is to look at those ‘unevenly distributed’ pockets where it’s already arrived. What new technologies – in the broad sense, including both new gadgets and new ways of thinking, organising work or doing things – what new technologies are overcoming old obstacles and enabling change? How might they be relevant you and your organisation?
Here are some concrete examples: the things I’ve got my eye on for my work in education in Indonesia. None of them are really that new – not even new for Indonesia – but they’re new for education in Indonesia, especially in education for the poorest. My questions are:
- Is it possible that the amazingly rich children’s book culture of, say, the UK, could flourish here? What would it take to grow a ‘children’s canon’ of locally written and published books that were widely known and loved, and a tribe of children’s authors who were household names? Room to Read and the Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read! Asia program are already doing great work to encourage this, but there’s so much more to do.
- What possibilities will develop for literacy education and teacher training as internet access becomes ubiquitous, even in the most remote areas? What things that have been scarce up to now – teaching resources, teacher training – will become less scarce, or even abundant?
- What needs to happen so that high-quality electronic teaching and learning resources of the sort already established on the English-language-and-culture internet are available in Indonesian – and then in local languages?
- Does the open-source movement in software and hardware offer a useful model for developing the above? If enough people start using resources, some of them might share improved versions back into the system, while also localising resources for their own contexts (e.g. to regional languages and culture, or for the needs of a particular group of people)
- Would a set of widely accepted open-source standards for specific aspects of education, and for teacher training and curriculum development as a whole, be a helpful scaffold for this process?
- If open source is something you’re interested in, you could start by reading Eric S. Raymond’s classic open-source manifesto, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. It’s free!
- If you’re interested in open-source education standards and resources – or better still, open-source education and standards for Indonesia, you might be interested in an article (.pdf – see page 6) that I wrote for the HEAD Foundation’s magazine THink.
If you’d like to talk about open-source education and standards, including for Indonesia, please get in touch via the contact page.
*Here’s an attempt to embed the .pdf for direct download:
I’ve just been listening to Tim O’Reilly, who’s in the running for the driverlesscroc thought-leader of the week award.*
*There is no award.**
**More to the point: crikey, what would Zinsser say about that sentence?
O’Reilly was talking about the unequal distribution of wealth from the technological explosion, and said this:
… the idea that companies should basically focus on their core competency and treat all those people really well, and outsource all the rest, and its lead to this incredible divergence in our economy, and I think it’s a really pernicious idea. We have to figure out how to get our hands around that.
Because it isn’t technology that is causing this problem – it’s our choices as a society. It’s our values in our companies.Tim O’Reilly at SXSW2018 (full video below)
Values question: What are you doing to help the people who work with you – or for you – to grow? It makes sense to be generous to scarce, highly skilled people, because of course you want to keep them. It means more to be generous to lower-skilled workers and help them learn what they need to know so that they can make a bigger contribution to your organisation, or to someone else’s (it’s not just your future that you’re building, after all). It’s the right thing to do.
(O’Reilly refers to ‘A Tale of Two Janitors’ in the New York Times – it’s worth a read.)
If you’re doing meaningful work, you’re trying to hit a moving target, and your job isn’t made any easier by how fast the world is changing.
These resources should help you calibrate your ‘deflector gunsight’ by giving you a sense of where technology seems to be going, hopefully giving you a better task of hitting what you’re aiming for. This is one that I’ll update periodically, adding texture or new resources.
The Kevin Kelly Section
Kevin Kelly – co-founder of Wired magazine, omnivorous techno-hippy – gets his own section. He’s funny and humane, and good at identifying trends and tendencies in tech and extrapolating these into the future. One of the many helpful ideas I’ve taken from KK is the realisation that we’re actually only at the beginning of the computer revolution. It feels like something that’s already happened – ‘if only I’d made a website in 1993’ – but Kelly argues that a hundred years from now people people will look back on this time as a golden age and say, ‘I wish I’d started then.’
New Rules for the New Economy: Radical Strategies for a Connected World
Kevin Kelly wrote this in 1995, predicting almost everything that happened with the internet between then and now, and it still feels incredibly relevant. And it’s free on his blog. Read and re-read in installments
What Technology Wants
It gets slow in places, but looking at technology as a new zoological ‘kingdom’ gives a whole new set of fascinating – and at times scary – insights.
The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that will Shape our Future
This is on my ‘to read’ list. I guess it’s an update and extension of ‘New Rules’, and I’m looking forward to find out
KK in Podcasts
Tim Ferriss show Ep 25: Kevin Kelly – WIRED Co-Founder, Polymath, Most Interesting Man In The World
A decent introduction and a fun listen
Tim Ferris Show #166: Kevin Kelly – AI, Virtual Reality, and The Inevitable
Unpacking ‘The Inevitable’ and a lot of other stuff
Econtalk, June 20 2016: The Inevitable
More free audio, with the great Russ Roberts poking around KK’s ideas and their implications for the economy.
The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Walter Isaacson’s fantastic story of the digital revolution runs from the mid-1800s to very-nearly now. The audiobook is great. A key theme is how technology accumulates incrementally, as well as in great leaps forward – and the importance of teams and culture (as opposed to great individuals), and of private and government-sponsored contributions to technological advance.
The Second Machine Age – Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
Erik Brynjolfsson – on the list. Features in an econtalk episode.
Tim Ferris Show #297 – Bob Metcalfe — The Man (and Lessons) Behind Ethernet, Metcalfe’s Law, and More
Another fascinating Silicon Valley story
Econtalk, August 28 2017 – Benedict Evans on the Future of Cars
One of my favourite Econtalk episodes. Evans’ discussion of the evolution of cars is fascinating, and there’s a lot to learn from the way he thinks about the future.
WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us
Tim O’Reilly – it’s on the ‘to read’ list.
Econtalk October 5th 2015: Tim O’Reilly on Technology and Work
Econtalk October 9th 2017 – Tim O’Reilly on What’s the Future
I’m flagging these as much for myself as for anyone else here – I think they were good?
There’s a lot by Seth Godin that could end up in here too…
To be continued…