Umair Haque, How and Why to Be a Leader (Not a Wannabe)
Umair on leadership in the postnormal.
Umair Haque suggests that ‘TED thinking’ — the sort that underlies the techno-utopianism behind the TED conference and much of the triumphalist ‘we can do anything’ discourse on the web — does an injustice to the power of ideas, and trivializes the issues we are confronted with.
Umair Haque, Let’s Save Great Ideas from the Ideas Industry
TED thinking assumes complex social problems are essentially engineering challenges, and that short nuggets of Technology, Edutainment, and Design can fix everything, fast and cheap.TED thinking assumes complex social problems are essentially engineering challenges, and that short nuggets of Technology, Edutainment, and Design can fix everything, fast and cheap. TED thinking’s got a hard determinism to it; a kind of technological hyperrationalism. It ignores institutions and society almost completely. We’ve come to look at these quick, easy “solutions” as the very point of “ideas worth spreading.”
But this seems to me to miss the point and power of ideas entirely. Einstein’s great equation is not a “solution”; it is a theory — whose explanations unravel only greater mysteries and questions. It offers no immediate easy, quick “application” in the “real world,” but challenges us to reimagine what the “real world” is; it is a Great Idea because it offers us something bigger, more lasting, and more vital than a painless, disposable “solution.”
Yet in the eyes of TED thinking, it is of limited, perhaps little, value. One can imagine Einstein being invited to give a TED talk on E=MC2 — and the audience wondering “Well, what’s the point of this? What can we use it to do? How can we make megabucks from this, next year?” When ideas are reduced to engineering challenges, the focus naturally becomes near-term utility in the so-called real world. We focus on implementation without ever stopping to question our assumptions. But Great Ideas don’t resound because they have “utility” in the real world — they are Great for the very reason that they challenge us to redefine the reality of our worlds; and hence, the “utility” of our lives.
So Great Ideas aren’t just “solutions”. Indeed, many of the Greatest Ideas are problems.
Great Ideas, then, don’t merely easily please us with their immediate utility — often, they break our hearts with desperate futility; with both the aching impossibility and sure inevitability of the trials and tests of human life. But that’s precisely what makes them Great.
That is precisely how Great Ideas change us: not merely by pleasing us, but by challenging us. That is precisely how they elevate us: not merely by pandering to us, or by provoking us, but by enlightening the whole of us. That is precisely what makes Great Ideas truly worthy — not just easily palatable, and commercially profitable.
We have moved into a time where our biggest challenges are not problems to be solved, but dilemmas that cannot even be explained in 18 minutes, let alone ‘solved’ in human lifetimes
We had great success in the industrial age by seeing the world in terms of engineering problems, and finding scientific means to solve them. (So long as you carefully avoided looking into the externalities that were mounting along with the slag heaps, C02, and income inequity.)
However, we have slipped into the postnormal, and out of the postmodern (more or less synonymous with late industrialism). And now, we have moved into a time where our biggest challenges are not problems to be solved, but dilemmas that cannot even be explained in 18 minutes, let alone ‘solved’ in human lifetimes.
Consider this example: How will we govern the Earth so that its resources and posterity are held in common for all people, and not exploited by a few to the detriment of all?
We are polarized around these issues, because the machinery that has brought us — unwillingly — into the postnormal is based on growth. TED thinking is tied inexorably to new ways to make growth work, in a time when we need to stop growing.
As Umair points out in another part of his essay, TED thinking is all mind and no heart, all heroes and no villains, good but no evil.
And there is the quick fix illusion that 18 minutes of glitter, rhetoric, and simplistic parsing of ‘problems and solutions’ makes us part of the illuminariat: that we are joined in a movement of the awakened.
But this is just another kind of sleeping, another way of pulling the blanket over our heads, merely a soporific to deaden the pain, and avoid wrenching open our hearts and minds to the realities that confront us.
Umair points out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes:
Umair Haque via
The promise of social technologies is to fundamentally reimagine and reboot yesterday’s crumbling institutions (and disempower the bumbling beancounters who run them). In political terms? They should be used — right now, right here, right this very second — to build a deeper democracy, one where via deliberation, citizens have a bottom-up impact on policy-making, which as it stands today is totally disconnected from and unresponsive to the general populace and unable to do much of anything about anything. They should be used to help ignite an authentic prosperity, by redrawing the boundaries of political freedom for the underprivileged and the powerless — and to blow apart a polity that protects and props up the privileged and the powerful.
What we don’t need is more of this: “People tuning out? Great — instead of actually improving stuff, hit ‘em with some marketing!!”
Sorry, Mr President: you’ve got the pundits, talking heads, and powers that be right where you want them (judging from the response you’ve gotten so far), but little old me? I’m not buying into your latest “campaign.” I’m not a “target.” I’m a citizen of a generation whose future is going up in smoke faster than you can say “credit default swaps.” And what you’re really telling me is this: in some parts of the world, social tools can fuel the revolutions that topple dictators. Here, in the nation that invented them? They’re used for marketing stunts.
Me? I’m not investing my time asking “questions” of a president who wants my “engagement” (Free today only! Get yours now!) yet seems totally, utterly disengaged with anyone not sartorially and financially gifted enough to wear a $7000 suit — “questions” that you know, I know, and my pet hamster knows will probably never have a hope in Hades of having an impact on anything except clogging up the cutting room floor.
There’s no possible way that President Obama is going to embrace a 21st century notion of ‘deeper democracy’. He’s a 20th century man, a moderate Republican leading the conservative wing of the Democratic party, and no firebrand techno-anarchist.
We’ll have to wait for some mutant to spring up, coming from outside the parties — and I don’t mean the Governor of some forgotten state out west — but a real populist, intent on a wholesale reconfiguration of the political system.
Perhaps, to time’s unblinking eye, this great crisis isn’t really about financial debt — perhaps that’s just a representation of a deeper set of truths. Perhaps it’s really about the deeper debts we owe to one another, and how failing to honor them has led us to a deeper bankruptcy: an insolvency of character, spirit, ethic, purpose, and above all, wisdom. Hence, perhaps* the idea of a “World Economic Forum,” like the ideas it champions, of “corporations,” “profit,” “jobs,” “GDP,” “shareholder value,” is an anachronism, an artifact that belongs to the past, a concept whose time has come — and gone.
Our best chance to heal our broken world might just be a series of revolutions — economic, industrial, social, political — that each starts with tinier awakenings — personal, professional, ethical, intellectual.
Hence, here’s my hunch: creating a better future’s going to take what it’s always taken. And that’s not powwows concerned with “winning,” because the future isn’t a game.
It’s going to take small steps towards rediscovering the timeless lessons of mattering; whose value isn’t just denominated in today’s dollars and cents — but whose worth is measured in meaning.
Absolute must-read from Haque as to why Silicon Valley is fading:
Quick: what would you call a business whose apathetic, listless — and sometimes irate — customers are starting to walk away, whose former blockbuster is becoming today’s lower and lower margin snoozer, whose most promising firebrands would rather eat a pound of plutonium than obey the conventional wisdom, and whose future is openly questioned by its own tribal elders? I’d call it a business for whom the bell of crisis is tolling the zero hour. Welcome to Silicon Valley — that intersection of venture capital, start-ups, markets, and IPOs — in the 21st century. Today, America — and the world’s — great engine of innovation has got Disruption Deficit Disorder.
So here’s my impertinent, and perhaps gigantically thick-headed, suggestion: maybe, just maybe: Silicon Valley should be the crucible of 21st century capitalism instead of the last bastion of 20th century capitalism.
What the Valley might just need, I believe, isn’t a host of new technologies. It first needs a host of new institutions, updated for 21st century economics (like those I wrote about last week). Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley are currently clusters of technological innovation — but what they might just have to become in the 21st century is clusters of innovation for our basic, fundamental economic institutions instead.
Amazingly radical, countercyclical thinking: we don’t need to get back to doing business the way we did prior to the econolypse: we need an entirely different notion of ‘business’ to break out of the ruts of 20th century industrial dogma.
Some excerpts from the Conway email that MG Siegler got his hands on:
I want to clarify once and for all my total disagreement with your values and motives for being investors.
I have stated consistently for year that I invest because I love helping entrepenuers and watching them learn and succeed.
I am honored that entrepenuers share their crystal ball views of the future of innovation and technology with us and respect the guts it takes to start a company.
At SV Angel we try to reciprocate by adding value any way we can.
I think that actions speak louder than words and SV Angel has always been a friend of entrepenuers and we focus our business to help entrepenuers achieve success.
The world of startups would be a better place if you spent less time complaining about deal structures, terms, vc’s, and valuations etc and the cars you drive, and just helped entrepenuers build their companies.
In my opinion your motives are driven by self serving factors around ego satisfaction and “making a buck”.
My motives and values are very different.
They are so different I want to be up front with you and recognize this and disengage from any involvement with you. I will not be a hypocrite.
I wish the Angel community could have the same integrity and values of the entrepenuer community, but unfortunately I now believe that is hopeless and your actions prove that.
Dave McCLure…pls try not to blog about this and cause silicon valley more embarrassment with your unprofessional classless writings.
I have nothing more to say, since Ron sums it up so well.
Update 2:25pm: Umair Haque adds some probing comments, wondering why super angels have the role in the ‘ventureconomy’ that they do:
A 21st century ventureconomy, just like other 21s century industries, will be built markets, networks, and communities. Ask yourself: why aren’t there transparent markets for venture finance? Liquid networks to let resources be shared, pooled, and remixed amongst aspiring entrepreneurs and seasoned investors? Transparent, self-organizing communities to pool, aggregate, and filter knowledge, access, and even investment ideas?
Imagine a Kickstarter writ large, that could harness the collective will of millions of participants, and undercut the super angels.
Umair has a great review of The Power Of Pull by John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison.
A sample of the post that proves The Power Of Pull is the new Bible for social business:
Flows, not stocks. Economists divide the world up into stocks and flows: think, literally, stockpiles of the many different kinds of resources, and the stuff that flows into or out of them. Arcing throughPull is the central idea that while 20th century advantage was created by hoarding stocks, 21st century advantage will be created by gaining access to richer, more intense, higher velocity flows.
Relationships, not transactions. You can buy or sell bits of stocks in isolated, arms-length exchanges. But surfing a set of flows usually requires deep, enduring, trusted relationships — because flows are like always-on sets of transactions that happen in continuous time, embedded in a social and cultural matrix.
So don’t just read Pull because it tells you what to do next. Read it because it paints a nuanced, compelling picture of why to do next — because it will help you see, and more importantly, feel, the contours of a new paradigm for 21st century prosperity.
Turns out that the exploding game industry isn’t all sunshine and flowers: after all, billions in revenue is at stake and that tends to not bring out the best in people.
It seems that Mark Pincus’ Zygna is a hotbed of idea theft, stealing ideas from competitors, and crushing them with the company’s reach. Just like Elvis Presley knocking off all the old ‘Race Music’ and repackaging it as rock’n’roll.
But Zygna may be reaching the end of that streak. Pincus has apparently been telling his employees to forget about innovation, and simply appropriate competitor’s game ideas:
Peter Jamison, FarmVillains
As the former senior employee who listened to Pincus rant against innovation recalls, workers at Zynga were fond of joking (albeit half-seriously) that their firm’s unofficial motto was an inversion of Google’s famous “Don’t Be Evil.”
“Zynga’s motto is ‘Do Evil,’” he says. “I would venture to say it is one of the most evil places I’ve run into, from a culture perspective and in its business approach. I’ve tried my best to make sure that friends don’t let friends work at Zynga.”
The derivative nature of Zynga’s high-grossing games isn’t just an ethical liability. While the company has recently enjoyed a spate of bullish mainstream media coverage, some industry experts say that its star could soon be on the wane. The audience for its signature application, FarmVille, has collapsed by 26 percent from its high of 84 million monthly users. As a new generation of social gamers demands more sophistication in online entertainment, some observers — including at least one of Zynga’s founders — question whether the company can adapt.
“You can’t make the cheap little viral games like you used to,” says Tom Bollich, an early Zynga investor and former lead engineer who owned more than 400,000 shares of the company in 2008, and who has now divested completely. “These games, it’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. You can get a lot of people, but they don’t stick around.”
We’ll have to see if Zygna has reached some limit in its growth, but I doubt that its business practices are known to users, or that it would make any difference if they did know.
Umair Haque twittered today ‘I don’t know what these guys are so upset about. That’s what business is all about.’ with regard to this story. After all, stealing the best ideas is Silicon Valley lore, isn’t it? But maybe there are still lines that can be crossed, even when unbridled capitalism is held up as a societal good.
The commensualistic relationship between Google and us, the edglings that inhabit the web, leads to all manner of confusion and insights.
William Gibson worries that we are unpaid for the social gestures that we festoon the web with, such as links, that Google’s refinery converts into search engine gold. He goes so far as to say, poetically, that Google is made of us:
Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.
via Google’s Earth
David Weinberger clarifies the relationship, but raises a deeper question about Google’s potentially negative impact on our web ecology:
David Weinberger, What’s ours in the Age of Google?
So, whats confusing about Google is that it feels so much like it is ours — for us, like us, of us. it is not just another entity in our ecology but is an important enabler of it. But, we also know that it’s a corporation out to make money. We don’t know how to make sense of this so long as we hold both sides of what, traditionally, would be a paradox. As Gibson says, we have not seen its like before.
The confusing part reflects the hope: Perhaps in this new world were building for one another on line, we can get past the age-old assumed alienation of business from customer. The Net is ours. We built it for ourselves and for one another. We’ve done so using collaborative techniques few would have predicted would have worked. The Net is ours profoundly. Google has seemed to be the one BigCo that genuinely understands that — understands it beyond a mere alignment of interests dayenu!, understands the depth and importance of the way in which the Net is ours.
So, when Google acts in a way that seems to benefit itself but not us — arguably in its initial proposed Google Books settlement and the Googizon proposal — the violence of the shock measures the depth of our belief that Google is ours — for us, like us, of us. If even Google is not ours, is there then no hope that this time, in this new world, we can get past the structural antagonisms and distrust that have characterized the old world of our economy and culture?
Perhaps if Google were clearly committed to being a ‘forporation’ (as Umair haque styles it), a corporation dedicated to advancing certain principles, and not just another C corporation, perhaps then we might be less worried.
Google has become so large, and so entwined in our experience and economics, perhaps it is inevitable that it casts a shadow and starts to feel like some outside force, like gravity, clearly beyond out control and around which we simply have to adapt.
And I have no faith in the US or other governments to compel Google to do no harm, even if we could define exactly what that is.