Tag Archives: Joi Ito

Narratives of innovation: techno tarot@Drumbeat

According to David Lane, sometimes we need to make decisions in a condition that he calls of ontological uncertainty. That means we have no means of painting an exhaustive picture of the situation and of the full range of moves we can possibly make; and certainly we are unable to foresee the consequences of the few moves we can imagine. In a famous article, David asks us to consider the situaton of a Bosnian diplomat trying to bring an end to the bloodshed in his country in early September 1995:

It is very difficult to decide who are his friends and who his foes. First he fights against the Croats, then with them. His army struggles against an army composed of Bosnian Serbs, but his cousin and other Muslim dissidents fight alongside them. What can he expect from the UN securiy forces, from the NATO bombers, from Western politicians, from Belgrade and Zagreb, from Moscow? Who matters and what do they want? On whom can he rely, for what? He doesn’t know – and when he thinks he does, the next day it changes.

How to make decisions in such a situation? Answer: by telling yourself stories. Humans are good at storytelling: if you recognize yourself as the hero of a story, he will inspire your course of action, just like Don Quixote changed his life to model it in on medieval chivalry epics.

Innovation often happens in ontological uncertainty conditions. It is certainly possible to have a well defined goal in terms of producing an artefact, but the market system that depends on what people will use that artifact for – is always emergent. Movable type printing was a well-defined R&D project, but Gutenberg could not have forseen Aldus Manutius’s portable book and and the Umanesimo movement in Italy in the Renaissance; Henry Ford rationalized car production, but he could not have foreseen bedroom communities and mass commuting. To build and bring to market an innovation means acting in a changing context, like that of our Bosnian diplomat. And that requires storytelling.

Nadia El-Imam has come up with the idea to help people to tell stories about themselves and what they are doing with technology. She uses a special deck of tarot cards she designed herself (in lieu of the Hermit and the Magician she has arcana like the Server, the Developer and the Interface). Dressed up as a gypsy fortune teller, she offered to divine the future of the various geeks gathered at Mozilla Drumbeat in Barcelona. It was a roaring success, with a permanent queue of people waiting to interrogate her tarot. Among them, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Joi Ito (in the video). Engaging with Nadia and the cards, innovators make sense of what they are doing, and look for a way to complete their quests.

In their own unusual way, Nadia’s techno tarot are a platform, that lends itself to be used for collecting ethnographic data on innovation, for technology counseling and who knows for what else. I am quite curious to see how it all evolves.

Narrative dell’innovazione: i tarocchi tecnologici a Drumbeat

Secondo David Lane, a volte siamo chiamati a prendere decisioni in condizioni che lui chiama di incertezza ontologica. Si ha incertezza ontologica quando non si è assolutamente di grado di fare un quadro esaustivo della situazione, e di arrivare a rappresentarsi la gamma delle scelte possibili e delle loro conseguenze per noi. In un articolo famoso, ci invita a considerare la situazione di un diplomatico bosniaco all’inizio del settembre 1995, che tenta di fermare il massacro che sta avvenendo nel suo paese.

È molto difficile decidere chi sono gli amici e chi i nemici. Prima combatte contro i croati, poi al loro fianco. Il suo esercito affronta un esercito composto da serbi bosniaci, ma suo cugino e altri musulmani dissidenti combattono al fianco di quest’ultimo. Cosa puà aspettarsi dalle forze di sicurezza dell’ONU, dai bombardieri NATO, dai politici occidentali, da Belgrado e Zagabria, da Mosca? Chi sono gli attori importanti, e cosa vogliono? Su chi può contare, e per cosa? Non lo sa – e quando crede di saperlo, la situazione cambia di nuovo.

Come decidere in queste situazioni? Risposta: raccontandosi storie. Gli umani sono bravi con le storie: se ti riconosci nell’eroe di una storia, sarà lui a ispirare le tue azioni, proprio come Don Chisciotte cambia la sua vita per rimodellarla sui modelli dell’epica cavalleresca medievale.

L’innovazione accade spesso in condizioni di incertezza ontologica. Si può avere un obiettivo in termini di produzione di un artefatto, ma il sistema di mercato – che dipende dall’uso che le persone decideranno di fare di quell’artefatto – è sempre emergente. La stampa a caratteri mobili è stata un progetto di ricerca e sviluppo, ma Gutenberg non aveva certo previsto l’umanesimo e il mercato dei libri tascabili di Aldo Manuzio; Henry Ford ha razionalizzato la produzione dell’automobile, ma non poteva prevedere i quartieri dormitorio per pendolari che la civiltà dell’automobile ha reso possibile. Realizzare e portare al mercato un’innovazione significa agire in un contesto mutevole, come quello in cui si muove il diplomatico bosniaco dell’esempio. E per farlo occorre raccontarsi storie.

Nadia El-Imam ha avuto l’idea di aiutare le persone a raccontare storie su se stessi e il loro rapporto con la tecnologia e l’innovazione usando degli speciali tarocchi da lei inventati (invece che la Torre e la Papessa, rappresentano il Server, il Programmatore, l’Interfaccia e così via). Vestita da cartomante zingara, si è offerta di leggere il futuro dei geeks che affollavano il Drumbeat, evento organizzato a Barcellona da Mozilla Foundation. Il risultato è stato un successo straordinario, con le persone in coda ad aspettare il loro turno di interrogare le carte. Tra di loro, l’imprenditore e venture capitalist Joi Ito (che si vede nel video). Attraverso l’interrogazione delle carte, gli innovatori riprendono il filo di ciò che stanno facendo e cercano una via per proseguire il loro viaggio.

A loro modo, i “tarocchi tecnologici” di Nadia sono una piattaforma, utilizzabile come strumento di ricerca etnografico, veicolo per il counseling aziendale e chissà quante altre cose. Sono curioso di vedere come evolve.

Schumpeter’s curse

In the late 90s I made my living as a rock musician. I stepped down in 2000, just in time. Jobs like my old one are disappearing fast; artists with an existing fan base are getting better at exploiting it cutting out various middlemen, while newcomers can get very popular very fast and with near-zero cash investment on Last.fm or Spotify, but they find it next to impossible to build a solid economy. They make music in their free time, the core skill is landing a day job that will pay the rent and allow you to go on tour. I’m told something similar is going on with videomakers and film directors. A deadly cocktail of low cost producton technology and online sharing has thawed massive reservoirs of creativity, turning it from scarce into plentiful. As it did so, it drove a stake through the heart of the music business, which turned into dust like a vampire at high noon (obituary by Dave Kusek). A texbook case of the creative destruction predicted by Joseph Schumpeter.

Fine, but startups are the new rock’n’roll, right? It’s the same narrative: bright, visionary youngsters, obsessed by their own ideas and in sync with the Zeitgeist, becoming millionaires at 23 and inspiring their generation to break away from the dull existence of their parents. And boy, do the young go for it: business plans contest have replaced rock band contests (the latter have migrated onto TV talent shows, maybe low on cred but endowed with a rock-solid business model).

And yet. Recently I found a post by Laurent Kretz, founder of Submate, that describes in merciless detail the hardships of the typical startup entrepreneur’s life. No dream job: it involves living on welfare, sleeping on friends’ couches, getting the boot from girlfriends tired to beg for attention, “being chased by your banker with a chainsaw”. A story all too familiar to my friends of CriticalCity, who triumphed in the end but paid a high price for it.

Mind you, this is not someone looking for a backer. Kretz does have an investor. A seed investor, that gave Mashape just enough money so that four people won’t starve to death as they put in 80-hours weeks for four months. This seems to be all the rage with early stage investor: I remember Joi Ito two years ago saying he only invests in a company that can bring him a working prototype coded by three people who locked themselves away in some cabin for a weekend, and even then he’ll only invest fifty thousand dollars.

Since then Ito has made progress. his latest experience is that a fully functional web services can be launched in three weeks by exactly two people: one designer, one developer. This is because code is modular: you don’t write it from the ground up, you just copy-paste existing routines. This process has been made more fluid by “metaprogramming” tools that stitch together chunks of code coming from different directions into an integrated program.

It does not take a genius to figure out that the startup world has entered a “hey, I can do that too!” phase. Since there is a limit to the market’s ability to absorb new stuff, software development skills could be on their way to becoming plentiful too. Before the job market reacts, we could even have a period in which a software engineer’s time is worth as much as a rock guitarists’, which is to say less than a baby sitter’s. It’s Schumpeter curse: when the market works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything.

Most economists interpret Schumpeter’s careful wording as a process that turns out to be a good thing in the long run, because it makes useful, expensive stuff cheap. I think they are wrong, because Schumpeter’s is not an equilibrium model: if creation and destruction are not in sync, the long run may never come around. What this means, I’m trying to figure out.