Tag Archives: David Lane

Lections from Egypt: moving on from prediction to early warning

Daniel Kaufmann had some fun compiling a list of the authoritative commentators that predicted that – unilke in Tunisia – in Egypt the disgruntled population would not take to the street, or anyway not in such a way to threaten the regime. Everybody seems to have fallen for it, from Foreign Policy to the BBC, from Time magazine to the Economist.

Forecasting was always tricky business, and is getting more so. In a society as complex as ours, even the best analyst are lousy at prediction. In an entirely different context, David Lane and others (yours truly included) are suggesting that in some cases prediction might be replaced by a system of early warning, that spots emergent social dynamics in its early stages, when correction is still possible. This would be done by combining and filtering large masses of data, many of which collected on the web. The idea — which might ring familiar to those who use the Internet as a social filtering device for information, is that the global conversation is an entity that exists at a level superior to ours, and as such might know things that none of us, mere participants, know.

To describe this hypothetical system, David likes to quote post-marketing surveillance on pharmaceuticals after the Thalidomide scandal. This drug used to be prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s, and it could induce terrible deformities in newborn children, but only combining in exquisitely nonlinear ways with other agents: it was cleared for rollout because the lab tests did not allow to discover the problem. It was the doctors treating the mothers of deformed or sick children that discovered, in the ocean of statistical noise, the weak signal of taking Thalidomide during pregnancy. As a consequence of this story, pharmaceutical companies now work with physicians to spot correlations to weak to be spotted in the lab, but that might be revealed by processing the mass of data obtaiend by tapping all doctors.

It is a fascinating topic, at least for me. And — going back to Egypt — it leads to an unexpected conclusion: it suggests another way that Wikileaks might be a good thing. Laks feed the global conversation, and thereby increase the probability that bloggers, citizens and activists poolf their knowledge and discover emergent trends. It has been argued that Wikileaks is nefarious, because it might hinder the work of diplomacy: but without better analysis, diplomacy cannot do an acceptable job anyway.

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.

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.