So said Alan Kay, satirising something he said maybe three decades ago. (While at Xerox PARC he is remembered as saying “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”) He was speaking at CIO 08: The Year Ahead, a conference I was at last week at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. In some ways his talk was an updated version of this one given by him twenty years ago; read it and see what you think, it will give you a flavour for how he thinks.
Some of the quotes make interesting reading, particularly this trio from Marshall McLuhan:
I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.
Innovation for holders of conventional wisdom is not novelty but annihilation.
We’re driving faster and faster into the future, trying to steer by using only the rear-view mirror.
There were a number of interesting sessions at the conference; I was pleasantly surprised, given my predilection for somewhat less “formal” conferences. I had the opportunity to spend some time talking to Alan later, and there were a number of things he said that are worth thinking about.
He spent some time working through what he meant by “preventing” the future, how corporations now have people without the domain knowledge to make the decisions they are otherwise empowered to make. Interesting stuff, grist to the mill for a future post. For now, I’d like to share something else. Three things he said really stuck with me.
The first was an assertion that innovation happens as a result of bringing together knowledge, IQ and point of view; that over the last three decades our society has tended to treat IQ as more important than knowledge or point of view; that as a result we have not really created very much, nothing really sustainable; instead, we have given in to pop cultures and pop processes, and so we build things badly, without really understanding scale.
[Hard-hitting stuff, uncomfortable stuff, but definitely worth thinking about. I was less convinced about his seemingly extending the arguments to opensource and to folksonomies. But then maybe I misinterpreted him. One way or the other, he was a challenging speaker.]
The second assertion was something along the lines of “Don’t worry about whether something is right or wrong, just try to find out what is going on“. The way I understood him, he was saying that we spend too much time analysing and “judging” what we see and hear and experience, and that as a result we don’t really understand what it is that we’re experiencing. That the process of judging happens too quickly, that we should try and detach ourselves from the judging process and instead just try to understand the “what”.
[It’s probably my anchors and frames and bias, but I thought he was saying something that resonated with what I think. For some time now I’ve been asserting that we should “filter on the way out, not on the way in”. And I guess he’s said it better than I could. Don’t decide whether something is good or bad,Â just try and experience that something, just try and figure out what it is. If enterprises took that stance towards opensource, towards social software, towards social networks, they might actually learn something. Instead they create arguments about just how many social networks can dance on the end of a pin…]
His third assertion was positively frightening. He asked something very simple:
How come there isn’t a Moore’s Law for software?
That felt good, just writing it. So I’ll repeat it. How come there isn’t a Moore’s Law for software?Â The way Alan asked it, there was an underlying innuendo. That we were wrong about many things we’ve done in the past thirty years, in terms of networks, operating systems, programming languages, hardware, applications, the lot. That the way we built them was wrong, and that we continue to compound the error.
[This was a hard one for me. Was it time to tear everything up and start all over again? If we didn’t do it, would someone else come and do it for us? I began to wonder. Could an entire industry have a variation of the Innovator’s Dilemma?Â Could I be in that industry right now?]
One thing was certain. We were not seeing a Moore’s Law operating in the world of software. What we were seeing was something quite the reverse, something possibly quite ugly.
All in all I had a really interesting time. I feel privileged, privileged to have met Alan, privileged to be in a job where I get the opportunity to think about things like this, and even the opportunity to do something about what I’m thinking about.
I’m particularly taken with his challenge on scale, his accusation that we don’t design things that really scale. I am reminded of my favourite definition of innovation, the one by Peter Drucker: “Innovation is aÂ change that creates a new dimension of performance.” By that yardstick, just how much innovation has happened in the last decade?
I didn’t agree with everything Alan said. That’s not the point.
The point is that he knew things I didn’t know, that he’d learnt things I hadn’t learnt, and that he was willing to share them with people who bothered to ask. So thank you Alan.