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

Bits for atoms

We’re repainting our house – this is one of the colours about to be mixed at our local hardware shop.

A small snippet of the colour catalogue looks like this:

Say you needed to have five tins of each colour you sold in stock – how big a shop would you have to have to stock them all? How much money would you have to have tied up in stocking colours that you rarely sold?

Here’s the wonder of the mixing station – it replaces thousands of tins of paint with a few base shades of paint, a computer, a mixing-machine and some well organised information. The result is that the selection of paint that you used to have to go to specialist paint shop for – a paint warehouse – is available at my local hardware shop, and is only a small part of what they stock.

Information (bits) for atoms.

Homework:

Which physical parts of what you do could be replaced by bits? What would this save? What new things would this enable you to do? What would this cost – you, your team, your clients?

Peter Drucker on management as a discipline

If you can’t replicate something because you don’t understand it, then it really hasn’t been invented; it’s only been done.

When I published The Practice of Management fifty years ago [in 1954], that book made it possible for people to learn how to manage, something that up until then only a few geniuses seemed to be able to do, and nobody could replicate it.

When I came into management, a lot of it had come out of the field of engineering. And a lot had come out of accounting. And some of it came out of psychology. And some more came out of labour relations. Each of those fields was considered separate, and each of them, by itself, was ineffectual.

You can’t do carpentry, you know, if you have only a saw, or only a hammer, or if you have never heard of a pair of pliers. It’s when you put all of those tools into one kit that you invent. That’s what I did in large part inThe Practice of Management – I made a discipline of it.

Peter Drucker – from Frontiers of Management in The Daily Drucker

Understand the tools (make them if you have to). Build a tool kit. Make it reproducible.

I have mixed feelings about this quote from Drucker. On the one hand, bringing together a set of reliable tools for making effective non-profits or social enterprises is exactly what I’m trying to do with DriverlessCroc. On the other, a lot of the things that make these organisations effective in their contexts are very hard to reproduce – often apparently serendipitous combinations of people and resources in the right times and places, with combinations of vision, skills and technology that aren’t reproducible because they haven’t happened before – and might not again.

The point, I think, is to learn which tools are out there and how to use them so that you can be more effective at the creative, unreproducible work that only you can do in your context. Use the tools to make a new tool for change: your organisation.

I’ve posted a few thoughts about what some of these are here – more to come soon.

Byproduct

Tobi Lütke (@tobi) is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Shopify. In 2004, Tobi began building software to launch an online snowboard store called Snowdevil. It quickly became obvious that the software was more valuable than the snowboards, so Tobi and his founding team launched the Shopify platform in 2006. He has served as CEO since 2008 at the company’s headquarters in Ottawa, Canada.

Intro to Tim Ferris Show Ep. 359

Incredibly useful things are often the product of doing something else:

  • WD-40 was first intended as a water-displacement compound to protect missiles from corrosion
  • Twitter started life as an internal messaging service at a podcasting company
  • CMOS censors – the camera on a chip that are used in most digital cameras today – was developed by NASA as they tried to shrink cameras for interplanetary travel (but they didn’t invent velcro)
  • Amazon Web Services (which probably runs a lot of the websites you use) grew out of Amazon’s own internal systems

There are thousands more – share yours and I’ll add them to the list.

This is personal

We’ve experienced this first hand at the literacy charity I work for. The levelled early-reading books that we developed for use within our own program turned out to be a scarce and valuable resource in Indonesia – so now we part-fund the program by supplying these to others… and our books have improved as a result.

The point

There are several points here.

  1. Serendipity plays a huge role in everything – some of these are intentional, but many are lucky mistakes…
  2. But serendipity happens to people who are doing things. Start now and start small. (We started selling our books after a chance meeting with someone from another organisation – but we did have the books).
  3. It seems to happen often to people who make a tool that meets their own need. This is partly because we make better dishes when we eat our own cooking. Tools are usually more easily repurposed by others (e.g. the development of clinical ultrasound) than products to be consumed.
  4. Tools to make tools (as in the case of shopify) have even more potential.
  5. Tools usually get better – more refined – when they find a market.

To do

  1. Business Model Generation (amazon link) is a great jumping-off point for thinking about this. Either start with these short clips, or this in-depth video.
  2. Look at your organisation (or yourself), and see where, in the process of doing what you do, you’ve made something (a tool, including documents and processes) that could be useful to other people.
  3. Ask how you could be generous with it – share it freely or for the price that makes it possible to share it again…
  4. Think about the wrapper – would people welcome training and support to use it well? How could sharing it improve it – would open source or creative commons licencing help?
  5. The next time you make a new tool or process, consider documenting how you did it, and the standards that you’re working towards. This will make your work better, and might result in something else that’s useful to others.

How tools spread

How do tools – ideas and understandings, practices, and real physical tools – get to the people who need them?

Some tools may only need to be seen to by copied and spread. A tool will spread if it is:

  • Visible – people need to see it (or hear, or read about it)
  • Beneficial – people need to see that the tool brings benefits too
  • Acceptable – isn’t in some way taboo*
  • Doable – simple enough to understand and apply
  • Accessible – people can get hold of what they need to start using it
  • Affordable – in terms of the physical, mental and emotional resources** and time needed to learn or use the tool

Further reading:

*Taboos may prevent one or both of the first two from happening
**”Can I afford the social or emotional costs of using this tool? Is it worth it?”
***The copyright section of which reads as follows:

You have permission to post this, email this, print this and pass it along for free to anyone you like, as long as you make no changes or edits to its contents or digital format. In fact, I’d love it if you’d make lots and lots of copies. The right to bind this and sell it as a book, however, is strictly reserved.

Computers marching towards us

Computers have been on a steady march toward us. At first, computers were housed in distant air-conditioned basements, then they moved to nearby small rooms, then they crept closer to us perched on our desks, then they hopped onto our laps, and recently they snuck into our pockets. The next obvious step for computers is to lay against our skin. We call those wearables. … You may have seen this coming, but the only way to get closer than wearables over our skin is to go under our skin.

In the coming decades we’ll keep expanding what we interact with. The expansion follows three thrusts:

1. More Senses

… Of course, everything will get eyes (vision is almost free), and hearing, but one by one we can add superhuman senses such as GPS location sensing, heat detection, X-ray vision, diverse molecule sensitivity, or smell. These permit our creations to respond do us, to interact with us, and to adapt themselves to our uses. Interactivity, by definition, is two way, so this sensing elevates our interactions with technology.

2. More intimacy

The zone of interaction will continue to march closer to us. Technology will get closer to us than a watch and pocket phone. … Intimate technology is a wide-open frontier. We think technology has saturated our private space, but we will look back in 20 years and realize it was still far away in 2016.

3. More immersion

Maximum interaction demands that we leap into the technology itself. That’s what VR allows us to do. Computation so close that we are inside it.** From within a technologically created world, we interact with each other in new ways (virtual reality) or interact with the physical world in a new way (augmented reality). Technology becomes a second skin.**

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable

** Think about this – computers outside and a long way away from us, then closer and closer, then inside us – and then we’re inside it. Does this in fact happen with more technologies – and is it true of our environment as a whole?
*** Of course, technology has been a second skin for millennia – that’s what clothes are.****
**** Starting with animal hide – literally, a second skin.

A chip in everything: find me

Here are the sorts of things that might happen when there’s a chip in everything, and all the things we own can talk to each other.

Find Me

You’ll never have to hunt for a lost item of clothing or a piece of paper again. The annoying questions that you used to ask your parents / housemates / spouse will be addressed to the AI that runs your house instead:

“Where’s my orange running shirt?”

Will be answered with something like:

“It’s in your clothes cupboard, but on the wrong shelf, under the green towels**.”
or
“It’s in the washing machine finishing the rinse cycle, and can be dry in 15 minutes.”
or
“I last saw it in your gym bag last Thursday… checking your locker at the gym now… I’m sorry to tell you that your orange shirt is lost***. Sending out a Lost and Found notice to your contact list now… It appears that your brother has ‘borrowed’ the shirt again. His AI is arranging for it to be returned later today.”****

Implications

Who might this be good news for? School children? The Elderly? You?
How could it change the work that you do?
How could this go wrong, and what could you do about it?

** Of course, it’s likely that you’ll have a service that will always put your clothes back in the right places.

*** And it’s unlikely that you’ll leave a shirt behind at the gym – your bag will see that it’s been left behind, and ask you if this is deliberate before you leave.

**** Assuming that your brother doesn’t actually want to steal your shirt, in which case his AI might deny knowledge, while arranging to remove the incriminating chip…

Seth Godin: Homeschooled (2)

There are choices that parents make all the time. They range from enlisting your kid in a team sport that’s based on compliance, instead of encouraging them to engage in an individual sport that’s based on establishing standards and then surpassing them.

Or perhaps it’s about setting a standard about what gets talked about at the dinner table. What tools are in your kids’ hands? Yes, you can afford that eighty-dollar tablet from amazon. Did it end up in your kids’ hands from the time they were two, eating chicken fingers in a restaurant and watching videos ’cause it’s more convenient?

How often are the kids in your family challenging the status quo of ideas and having intelligent conversations with you about what they think and why the think it?

How do we deal with failure?

How do we deal with challenges?

How old should a kid be before she publishes her first poem online?

Homeschooling kids in the afternoon, homeschooling kids at the weekend, doesn’t mean helping them get better at the test …

… we need to be significantly more overt in the culture we seek to create at home, and I don’t think we have to pull our kids out of school to do it. I think we have the chance to recognise they’re in school every time we’re with them.

Seth GodinAkimbo Connect the Dots

In their hands

Make something people can use.

Put it in their hands.

See what happens.

If they’re eager to pay – attention, time, money – you’re onto something.

Watch them. Listen to them. Tweak it. Make more of it. See what they think.

If they tell their friends – and if their friends tell their friends – then you’ve got it.

What change do you seek in the world? Who are the people you seek to serve?

You’ve got it when they’ve got it.

You’ll know you’ve got it when you meet someone for the first time, and the thing you made is already in their hands.