How do we create value in a world of mash-ups, remixes and nested hyperlinks? As I keep arguing, we do it through connecting – connecting ideas together, and connecting ideas to people. This is one of the core ideas that Jaron Lanier gets at in his frustrating but good new book You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier is a significant figure in the computing world who has accomplished a great deal. He was one of the pioneers in virtual reality, and coined that phrase. He was sharing a house with Richard Stallman when Stallman hatched the idea for GNU, which ended up leading to Linux, among other things. He’s been right in the middle of a lot the technological advances that we’ve seen over the past 30 years – so when he talks about digital issues, it’s worthwhile to pay attention to him.
You Are Not a Gadget builds on an argument that Lanier has been formulating for a while. The core ideas have been laid out in his essays One Half a Manifesto and Digital Maoism. The main theme is that Lanier takes issue with what he calls ‘cybernetic totalism’ – the key idea of which is:
That biology and physics will merge with computer science (becoming biotechnology and nanotechnology), resulting in life and the physical universe becoming mercurial; achieving the supposed nature of computer software. Furthermore, all of this will happen very soon! Since computers are improving so quickly, they will overwhelm all the other cybernetic processes, like people, and will fundamentally change the nature of what’s going on in the familiar neighborhood of Earth at some moment when a new “criticality” is achieved- maybe in about the year 2020. To be a human after that moment will be either impossible or something very different than we now can know.
To argue against this, he ends up arguing against a number of ideas that are currently popular, such as the discussion around the role of ‘free’ in business models, commons-based intellectual property initiatives, and the idea Moore’s Law will inevitably lead to a merging of computer science with, well, everything else.
Many parts of the book strike me as just wrong. He mangles the discussion of Stewart Brand’s ‘information wants to be expensive… but it also wants to be free’ dichotomy in a way that seems willfully obtuse – I have a hard time believing that he doesn’t have a better understanding of that argument. And when he talks about problems with musicians trying to make money with digitally-based business models – he contrasts the current state of affairs with a romanticised past that never existed. For example, he says that current model serves kids in a van that are willing to drive around to play gigs reasonably well, but that this isn’t a sustainable career. When has that ever been? Every band I’ve ever loved has done that, and they’ve been doing it since at least the mid-60s?
He then asks for examples of musicians that have succeeded with digitally-based promotion models. He discounts Jonathan Coulter because he has lowest-common denominator appeal (ummm, again like pretty much every single popular act for the past 40 years – that’s kind of the definition of ‘popular’) and then says he doesn’t know of any himself. Well, there are examples like Ani DiFranco and Kristin Hersh, and there also cumulative stats like the ones reported by the Times Online Lab, which show that in the UK, the share of music-generated revenue that goes to musicians rather than intermediaries has risen substantially over the past 5 years.
I think that some of these issues weaken his overall argument. But the book still has a couple of extremely strong points. The first is that Lanier has a number of concrete recommendations, which could be tried. I’m not sure they’ll work, but for example, his ideas about creating standardised formats and reporting rules for financial instruments strike me as well thought out, and something that we really do need to try.
And the core of his argument is exactly correct – we must have economic and creative systems that stimulate and reward the creation of new ideas. Open innovation only works when the organisations involved are creating their own ideas and contributing them to the mix. Mash-ups only work if there is something to mash-up in the first place. Lanier’s tagline is ‘You have to be somebody before you can share yourself’, and I think that this is exactly correct.
When I talked about Howard Rheingold’s filtering strategies the other day I discussed his idea that it is not enough simply to aggregate and filter information – you have to do something with it. You have to connect ideas up in a novel way – this is the fundamental creative act. You have to connect ideas together. This is hard. It takes time, it requires talent, and you have to work at it to develop your skills. You have to put the hours in, and develop grit to go with your intelligence.
Hutch Carpenter wrote a terrific post today about the importance of ideas. He used the example of what goes on within firms, saying:
When I post an idea, I create the basis for finding others. That because when I post an idea, I’m making…
A call for your interest
Think about that. The act of publishing an idea is a broadcast across the organization. It’s a tentative query to see who else feels the same way. Or if not the same way, who has an interest that overlaps mine.
This is unique to ideas. Ideas are potential. They are a change from the status quo. There are others who share at least some aspect of your idea. In large, distributed organizations, where are these people?!!
Carpenter also quotes Brian Solis who says that “Ideas connect us more than relationships.”
I think that these ideas are critical as we build our networks. We don’t just blog and tweet and link-in just for the sake of making connections. At least, we shouldn’t. We should do these things to share our ideas. We should build our network around our ideas.
But to do that, we have to have some first. The value in Lanier’s book is in pointing this out. Before we can connect to people, we have to connect up ideas. That’s how we enrich those with whom we connect.