Friday, November 14, 2014

A Music Review

We have abused all of the great words.  I love words.  Words like finial and newell post or picayune or asinine are so perfect and exact.  And the great words, words like peace, faith, courage and love are so vaulting and once trusting now plaintive in their effort to ask us to aspire to something great. Their meanings are not declarations but interrogatives. In the dictionary they ask: “what could I mean in your world?”

No soldier is more courageous than when she lays down her gun or never picks it up or never considers the gun at all. War and conflict are actually confounding of courage. It is courageous to aspire to grace. Not the receiving of it, because you have it.  You don’t deserve it but that’s the way of grace as my Sundays on the couch self understands it. Not the receiving of grace but the practicing - maybe questing, maybe it’s a journey? Maybe only process is courageous.  Love is courageous - not harts and ponies love - graceful love. I am also clear that courage is terrestrial, even mundane, certainly of the earth and more than self.

I see courage in art and expression.

Sophie Hunger

Just 'found' her (like Columbus 'found' America) last night which is why this post. In her first song (@ 0:16) in this TED “talk” she stands plainly in her humanity. This video is from 2009 and I am hoping, selfishly, for myself, that she is this person for always. The decisions she makes are jarring and beautiful. What would I do with my TED Talk? Could I give this well, be this present?

Valerie June

(If you have never listened to Valerie June, please do not make this video your introduction to this exceptional artist. Maybe try this one first.)
In this video, she makes a plain, actually, a naked offer - “I’ll be somebody to love.” And she does so Good Morning America - maybe the most antithetical stage she could find. Watching her through the course of the song, it wasn’t until I got to the end that I realized I was breathing and realized that I wasn’t breathing before. Could I move from plastic to courageous like she did? I listen to Valerie June a lot - nearly every day because she informs me. Can I give like that?

Friday, September 19, 2014

What is Resilience?

Resilience is a buzzword. Like 'innovation', in a general way we know what it means - enough to nod our heads at a cocktail party or during an elevator pitch. But that's not good enough if you are creating a solution to build resilience.  So, what is resilience?

Robert E. Ulanowicz is Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Ecology with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. He has an amazing body of work in the field of Ecological Economics. In one particularly brilliant paper (Quantifying economic sustainability: Implications for free-enterprise theory, policy and practice) he and his colleagues provided the best definition and context for resilience that I have ever seen.

I am going to provide my interpretation of the paper but I would recommend reading it for yourself.

The first and maybe most interesting point is that resilience opposes efficiency. As a system or a network or a community becomes more resilient it also becomes less efficient. This kinda sucks because both resilience and efficiency are good things.  Additionally, they oppose each other along an access of diversity defined as number of possible pathways or connections. Maximizing efficiency requires reducing diversity or more accurately, maximum efficiency uses only one pathway.

The next point to make is that, because of the whole efficiency opposing resilience thing, as a system becomes more efficient it becomes less resilient and it generates a greater total throughput. This is because there is less diversity or connections so their are fewer choices.  With only one pathway - one input to get one output - generation of the output can be maximized. With too much resilience you have too many pathways to optimize. And this is the point where the wealth maximizing capitalists put on a self-satisfied grin, nod their heads and leave the room.  But wait, come back!

The problem with 'Output' as the Y axis is that it ignores time and time is why we are interested in sustainability. While it is true that greater efficiency creates a greater output, it also creates a more brittle or fragile system that is more susceptible to failure. Our definition for sustainability is 
'the ability to sustain the production of an output over time".  Now that our graph recognizes we exist in time we can include the concept of vibrancy.  Vibrancy is "the state of balancing efficiency and resiliency over time to maintain a healthy system capable of sustaining a desired output". In this graph, we can see the essential nature of resilience.  While it is still true that too much resilience will create a stagnant system, it is also true that the optimal balance between resiliency and efficiency will create vibrancy. It is also interesting to note that the data gathered from real natural ecosystems suggests that the balance point favors resilience just a bit.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Time to Stop Playing Business and Focus on People

Profit and People

Please excuse a short excursion into this dilettante's version of economic theory to begin this post.  I do this in an attempt to declare the rigorous intellectual foundations for our economy as it is and for where I believe our economy must go.  In both cases the underlying economic theory is market based and Capitalist. I am a Capitalist. This post is about Capitalism.

Wealth Maximization is currently American Capitalism’s dominant ideology. Wealth Maximization was first described by Richard Posner in 1979 (Utilitarianism, Economics, and Legal Theory), as an economic theory concerned with maximizing social welfare.  In Posners own words, “wealth maximization provides an ethically attractive norm for social and political choices”.  His second essay in 1985 (Wealth Maximization Revisited) is more interesting because he directly addresses his critics who disagree that wealth can be an ethical or a normative value.  Posner’s claim that it can is based on a trend in economic theory to see economics as a march towards being a hard science like physics and away from a social science like sociology. Posner’s wealth maximization theory is the extension of a school of economic theory that has focused on the mathematical ideas of utility and efficiency. Posner claims a strong connection between wealth and happiness and he claims that market mechanisms can govern wealth (and therefore happiness).  While Posner is careful to describe what he means by wealth, utility, happiness and efficiency it has not stopped business actors from reinterpreting his theory and replacing his nuanced idea of wealth with the very simple idea of profit - wealth maximization begat profit maximization.  Essentially, Posner’s careful wordsmithing is ignored and the presence of profit becomes de facto evidence of an efficient and ethical economic activity.  Posner’s carefully constructed Wealth Maximization becomes the rapacious Capitalists justification for profit maximization.

Countering Posner’s Wealth Maximization theory is a school of economics that builds on the math of Economics while providing a rigorous explication of human behavior in the context of the choices we make in our economic lives.  At least two nobel prize winners of economics come from this tradition - Daniel Kahneman and Elinor Ostrom. In the late 1970’s Kahneman and others began to build the new theory of Behavioral Economics that pays close attention to the psychological aspects of consumer choice.  Ostrom focused on the idea that the tragedy of the commons is not an immutable law but instead a flawed and cynical theory.  Ostrom demonstrates that private ownership is often not the best way to manage a common pool resource and instead, stakeholders can self-organize and manage the resources they need to have sustainable livelihoods.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

What's a Website For?

I have done a lot of work in my career at the intersection of technology and social change. While I have never focused specifically on web development I have built many websites and most of them poorly. It has only been recently that I have been able to embrace the idea that less is more. So, I thought I would write out a quick post to describe what I see as the four types of websites that are differentiated by the goals that they serve. The first two are content sites and the second two are community sites. In reality, a real site may have aspects of all four.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Disruption: Lord of the Flies Tech Startup Edition

A friend - Jessica Margolin - recently pointed me to a TechCrunch article about Silicon Valley tech start-ups and disruption. The article is titled, Stop the JerkTech and starts like this:
“Go disr*pt yourself” is what I have to say to founders of startups like ReservationHop and Parking Monkey. They’re emblematic of a compassionless new wave of self-serving startups that exploit small businesses and public infrastructure to make a buck and aid the wealthy. Let’s call these parasites #JerkTech. It’s one thing to outcompete a big, stagnant company with new technology. It’s another to screw over the little guys just because you can sell what’s usually free.
I am sympathetic to idea that businesses should be compassionate and not be self-serving. Actually, I think that this idea - that businesses should be compassionate and not self-serving - is a worthy and fundamentally disruptive innovation.  Maybe at the next TechCrunch Disrupt Event they should present this specific disruption - this idea that businesses should be compassionate and not self-serving.  Given that TechCrunch Disrupt has given stage time to apps that help people surreptitiously stare at women's breasts (Titstare) and apps that help men pretend to masturbate it would be good to put compassion and shared value at the podium too. While TechCrunch Disrupt did earnestly apologize for this lapse in judgement it is entirely fair to bring it up because disruption is a critical aspect of their brand and they should be judged not just by their intentions but also by the direction in which they are making they're mistakes.  Can you imagine a mea culpa where TechCrunch Disrupt has to apologize for being too human, for being to relevant?

If we needed any further evidence of how badly we need to disrupt Silicon Valley disruption, here is the story of Tinder from BusinessWeek. Tinder is the real life version of Titstare.

The Truth About Tinder and Women Is Even Worse Than You Think
And this article from Reuters on Tinder and Snapchat.
The people behind the smartphone apps Snapchat and Tinder have the power to reshape how we interact with our romantic and sexual partners, and how we seek and have sex itself. That’s an enormous responsibility — one that requires maturity, good judgment and a healthy respect for gender equality. The problem is, a few of the people behind Snapchat and Tinder seem to have none of the above.
Tinder and Snapchat's "executives" are exactly the children that would logically be the executives of Tinder and Snapchat. These boys are playing at business - it's like Lord of the Flies tech start-up edition - puerile and childish.

And to come full circle, at the next TechCrunch Disrupt Event, Sean Rad, Tinder CEO will be a "notable speaker" along with Marc Benioff.  I would LOVE to see a conversation between the deservedly embattled Sean Rad and Benioff who is a responsible business leader and a full grown adult who likely does not suffer fools...

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The ancient and recently controversial idea that we are better together

It is not hyperbole to say that the twin innovations of Human Centered Design and Lean Startup have been revolutionary for social enterprise. Businesses and their products are being designed not just with the customer in mind but with the customer at the table. This has lead to the effective integration of the realities of customers needs as well as a respect for their behaviors.  As a result we have built products that address needs and are delivered sustainably by agile and responsive companies.   

The problem is that design is expensive - especially design that starts at ideation - and we cannot get to the scale that we need if every business needs to design from scratch. The structures that we are using to leverage market forces define 'smart' and 'disciplined' as staying focused internally - staying focused on the bottom line(s). And this is a good thing... but.  It has an unintended consequence. 

A rabid focus on the righteous efficacy of our social businesses has made us crap at working collectively.  I use the word collectively because we can no longer use either the word 'sharing' or 'collaboration' because they no longer mean anything.  'Collectively' seems to still mean, roughly, 'interdependently' - we-the-pieces need each other to be us-the-whole.

Sharing is easy because sharing now means marketing - slap on you logo and give it to the world. (All good memes eventually mean marketing.) Discovering something promising and then remixing it and improving it, that's hard. And that is what I think we must do now.

This is what I am working on with the Resilience Exchange.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The great Facebook research caper

Facebook has done a great job of managing its brand.  The evidence of this is the outrage over the recent research study.  We are only outraged because we think it is outrageous. A more sober analysis makes this study almost predictable.

We are all only Facebook customers. We pay for their product with our attention and with our content. To that end, the experiment that they did is essentially a more rigorous version of classic AB testing where a company will expose variants of their product to random groups of customers to gauge their reactions - to better understand how their customers engage with their product so they can build a product that elicits the specific reactions that their business model calls for.  This is what we would expect of Nike or Patagonia or any other corporation. This is what we should expect of Facebook.  Advertising is explicitly the act of manipulating a consumers emotions to elicit a specific response. It is a reasonable thing for a company to want you to enjoy their product - to feel good while you are using it.

The question is, what will Facebook do with this data. The study supposedly proves that the emotional content of a Facebook feed impacts the emotional content of a users posts (and the assumption is that it also impacts the emotions of the user.)  Just as it is reasonable and predictable to think that Facebook would do the study, it is also reasonable and predictable that Facebook will look for ways to make your feed more positive so that your posts and your emotions are also more positive.

As Adam D. I. Kramer one of the researchers states: "The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product. We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends' negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook. We didn't clearly state our motivations in the paper."

We are customers.  We can choose what we consume. What would the "social media" product be that would deserve our outrage?