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Breaking Smart – what a wonderful season of essays

August 18, 2015

Highlights from various essays from this index page:

‘we expected too much too soon from 1995 to 2000, leading to the crash. Now in 2015, many apparently silly ideas from 2000, such as home-delivery of groceries ordered on the Internet, have become a mundane part of everyday life in many cities. But the element of surprise has dissipated, so we tend to expect too little, too far out, and are blindsided by revolutionary change in sector after sector.’

‘Those who adopt a Promethean mindset and break smart will play an expanding role in shaping the future. Those who adopt a pastoral mindset and retreat towards tradition will play a diminishing role, in the shrinking number of economic sectors where credentialism is still the more appropriate model’

‘This means increasing well-being for all will be achieved through small two-pizza teams beating large ones. Scale will increasingly be achieved via loosely governed ecosystems of additional participants creating wealth in ways that are hard to track using traditional economic measures. Instead of armies of Organization Men and Women employed within large corporations, and Organization Kids marching in at one end and retirees marching out at the other, the world of work will be far more diverse.’

‘A big implication is immediately clear: the asymptotic condition represents a consumer utopia. As consumers, we will enjoy far more for far less. This means that the biggest unknown today is our future as producers, which brings us to what many view as the central question today: the future of work.’

‘the social order surrounding work will be a much more fluid descendant of today’s secure but stifling paycheck world on the one hand, and liberating but precarious world of free agency and contingent labor on the other.’

‘As the hacker ethos spreads, we will witness what economist Edmund Phelps calls a mass flourishing— a state of the economy where work will be challenging and therefore fulfilling. Unchallenging, predictable work will become the preserve of machines.’

‘early programming was led by creative architects (often mathematicians and, with rare exceptions like Klari Von Neumann and Grace Hopper, usually male) who worked out the structure of complex programs upfront, as completely as possible. The actual coding onto punch cards was done by large teams of hands-on programmers (mostly women1) with much lower autonomy, responsible for working out implementation details.’

‘With the development of smaller computers capable of interactive input hands-on hacking became possible. At early hacker hubs, like MIT through the sixties, a high-autonomy culture of hands-on programming began to take root. Though the shift would not be widely recognized until after 2000, the creative part of programming was migrating from visioning to hands-on coding. Already by 1970, important and high-quality software, such as the Unix operating system, had emerged from the hacker culture growing at the minicomputer margins of industrial programming.’

‘The cost of this agility is a seemingly anarchic pattern of progress. Agile development models catalyze illegible, collective patterns of creativity, weaken illusions of control, and resist being yoked to driving utopian visions. Adopting agile models leads individuals and organizations to gradually increase their tolerance for anxiety in the face of apparent chaos. As a result, agile models can get more agile over time.’

‘Open Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in forestry,  open data initiatives in urban governance, and monitoring technologies in agriculture, all increase  information availability while eliminating cumbersome paperware processes….Once a field becomes hacker-friendly, software begins to eat it.’

‘The IETF slogan of rough consensus and running code (RCRC) has emerged as the only workable doctrine for both technological development and associated economic models…’

‘From the earliest days of interactive computing, when programmers chose to build games while more “serious” problems waited for computer time, to modern complaints about “trivial” apps (which often turn out to be revolutionary), scarcity-oriented thinkers have remained unable to grasp the essential nature of software for fifty years.’

‘Rough consensus favors people who, in traditional organizations, would be considered disruptive and stubborn: these are exactly the people prone to “breaking smart.” In its most powerful form, rough consensus is about finding the most fertile directions in which to proceed rather than uncovering constraints.’

‘Traditional processes of consensus-seeking drive towards clarity in long-term visions but are usually fuzzy on immediate next steps. By contrast, rough consensus in software deliberately seeks ambiguity in long-term outcomes and extreme clarity in immediate next steps. ‘

‘At an ethical level, rough consensus is deeply anti-authoritarian, since it avoids constraining the freedoms of future stakeholders simply to allay present anxieties. The rejection of “voting” in the IETF model is a rejection of a false sense of egalitarianism, rather than a rejection of democratic principles.’

[Wah, ustaad, wah!!…yeh padh kar hee life ban gayee!]

‘The decade after the dot com crash of 2000 demonstrated the value of this principle clearly. Startups derided for prioritizing “growth in eyeballs” (an “interestingness” direction) rather than clear models of steady-state profitability (a self-limiting purist vision of an idealized business) were eventually proven right. Iconic “eyeball” based businesses, such as Google and Facebook, turned out to be highly profitable. Businesses which prematurely optimized their business model in response to revenue anxieties limited their own potential and choked off their own growth.’

‘Those who bemoan the gradual decline of famous engineering labs like AT&T Bell Labs and Xerox PARC often miss the rise of even more impressive labs inside major modern products and their developer ecosystems.’

‘The IBM OS/2 project of the early nineties,4 conceived as a replacement for the then-dominant operating system, MS-DOS, provides a perfect illustration of “better is worse.” Each of the thousands of programmers involved was expected to design, write, debug, document, and support just 10 lines of code per day. Writing more than 10 lines was considered a sign of irresponsibility. ‘

[Gem! 🙂 ]

‘But concerns that the game might end should not lead us to limit ourselves to what philosopher James Carse6 called finite game views of the world, based on “winning” and arriving at a changeless, pure and utopian state as a prize. As we will argue in the next essay, the appropriate mindset is what Carse called an infinite game view, based on the desire to continue playing the game in increasingly generative ways. From an infinite game perspective, software eating the world is in fact the best thing that can happen to the world.’

‘All it takes is one thing: a thriving frontier of constant tinkering and diverse value systems must exist somewhere in the world.

‘Diamonds were once worth fighting wars over. Today artificial diamonds, indistinguishable from natural ones, are becoming widely available.’

‘When pastoralist calls for actual retreat are heeded, the technological frontier migrates elsewhere, often causing centuries of stagnation. This was precisely what happened in China and the Islamic world around the fifteenth century, when the technological frontier shifted to Europe’

‘Specific ideas may fail. Specific uses may not endure. Localized attempts to resist may succeed, as the existence of the Amish demonstrates. Some individuals may resist some aspects of the imperative to change successfully. Entire nations may collectively decide to not explore certain possibilities. But with major technologies, it usually becomes clear very early on that the global impact is going to be of a certain magnitude and cause a corresponding amount of disruptive societal change.’

‘In art, the term pastoral refers to a genre of painting and literature based on romanticized and idealized portrayals of a pastoral lifestyle, usually for urban audiences with no direct experience of the actual squalor and oppression of pre-industrial rural life.’

‘When pastoralists pay attention to drones at all, they see them primarily as morally objectionable military weapons. The fact that they replace technologies of mass slaughter such as carpet bombing, and the growing number of non-military uses, are ignored.’

‘absolute utopias for believers that necessarily represent dystopias for disbelievers. Totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, such as communism and fascism, are the product of pastoral mindsets in their most toxic forms. The Jeffersonian pastoral was a nightmare for black Americans.’

‘From the Greek philosopher Plato1 (who lamented the invention of writing in the 4th century BC) to the Chinese scholar, Zhang Xian Wu2 (who lamented the invention of printing in the 12th century AD), alarmist commentary on technological change has been a constant in history. A contemporary example can be found in a 2014 article3 by Paul Verhaege in The Guardian

‘Drivers of early horseless carriages were degenerate dependents, beholden to big corporations, big cities and Standard Oil.’ (Was it really seen this way?!)

‘For Prometheans, on the other hand, not only is there no decay, there is actual moral progress.

‘Hamilton did not just suggest a way out of the rural squalor1 that was the reality of the Jeffersonian pastoral. His way also led to the dismantlement of slavery, the rise of modern feminism and the gradual retreat of colonial oppression and racism.’


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