Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Leon Trotsky once said: ‘You may not be interested in technology, but technology is most certainly interested in you.’ Thus, does technology have it’s own agenda?

Well Kevin Kelly's new book 'What Technology Wants' makes clear technos has a path with a teleological force (are you listening Trotsky!).

Clearly, technology not only give us evermore choice, it gives us more time, and increased productivity to invent more technology. In fact, a major milestone in human cultural evolution - and a consequence of Kelly’s hypothesis - is (was) the very moment we invented the first ‘Toy!’

Perhaps human civilisation didn’t begin with the struggle with ‘Tools’, but begun with the pleasure of ‘Toys!’

In fact we humans have only ever produced 2 technological archetypes: the ‘Tool’ and the ‘Toy‘.

1) Tools: language, the controlled production of fire, flint knife, clothing, shelter, mega-dumper trucks.

2) Toys: rhythmical chants, fire walking, fashioned stones on string, iPODs.

It was only when man had a little time on his hands that he could 'chose' to play; suddenly entertainment arrived. And that only happened through the evolution of more productive tools.

Kelly's provocative book introduces a brand-new view of technology. It suggests that technology as a whole is not a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies.

Kevin Kelly looks out through the eyes of this global technological system to discover "what it wants." He uses vivid examples from the past to trace technology's long course and then follows a dozen trajectories of technology into the near future to project where technology is headed.

This new concept of technology offers three practical lessons:

1) By listening to what technology wants we can better prepare ourselves and our children for the inevitable technologies to come.

2) By adopting the principles of pro-action and engagement, we can steer technologies into their best roles.

3) And by aligning ourselves with the long-term imperatives of this near-living system, we can capture its full gifts.

Written in intelligent and accessible language, this is a fascinating, innovative, and optimistic look at how humanity and technology join to produce increasing opportunities in the world and how technology can give our lives greater meaning.

His new book comes out this October!

The Shirky Principle.

(Adapted form KKs Blog)

"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." -- Clay Shirky

I think this observation is brilliant. It reminds me of the clarity of the Peter Principle, which says that a person in an organization will be promoted to the level of their incompetence. At which point their past achievements will prevent them from being fired, but their incompetence at this new level will prevent them from being promoted again, so they stagnate in their incompetence.

The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.

Unions, or example. Unions were a brilliant solution to the problem of capital management which tended to exploit uncapitalized workers. But over time as capital increased in complexity, unions complexified as well, until unions needed management. The two became one system -- union/management. So now the problem with unions is that they are locked into the old framework, the old system. They inadvertently perpetuate the continuation of the problem (management) they are the solution to because as long as unions exists, companies feel they need management to offset them, and so the two became co-dependent. In effect problems and solutions tend become a single system.

In his brilliant, classic book The Innovator's Dilemma, Clay Christensen demonstrates how disruptive technologies almost always arise from the margins of an industry, where they start out as insignificant, or toy, solutions. Honda's hobbyist electric bicycles were no threat to the big four automobile companies, until electric bikes become motorcycles and motorcycles became small efficient cars. Cheap crumby dot matrix printers were no threat to big offset printing companies until dot matrix became injet printers and injects became the HP Indigo 5000 on-demand printers. In each case, the solutions were marginal, barely working, at first, and therefore ignored. I think what Clay Shirky is pointing out is that many problems, too, are marginal at first, and therefore ignored. Established industries like to focus on established problems.

Shirky made his quote in a recent talk, a bit from his upcoming book Cognitive Surplus. Shirky also referred to a similar idea in a recent blog posting about the ways in which media companies and the media industry are often constitutionally incapable of changing because they are still solving the last problem.


In a strong sense we are defined by the problems we are solving. Yin/Yang, problem/solution, both sides form one unit. Because of the Shirky Principle, which says that every entity tends to prolong the problem it is solving, progress sometimes demands that we let go of problems. We can then look to marginal solutions and ask ourselves, what marginal problem is this solving that might be a more appreciated problem later on?