Photo (and associated recipe) courtesy minniecooks.wordpress.com
I used to be a vegetarian.
Growing up in a Brahmin Hindu household in Calcutta, that meant potatoes and chapatis and daal and dahi (thayir) as my staple meal. Of course I had rasam and sambar with rice; of course I had mixed-vegetable delicacies like avial; and occasionally I would even cheat and include breakfast or tiffin dishes like idli and dosai and upma. And chillies. Chillies with everything. Lots of chillies.
I was in heaven.
One day, around 45 years ago, at a friend’s birthday party, all that changed. I had the most wonderful vegetable samosa. Turned out there was a reason why I found it that wonderful. It wasn’t vegetarian. I loved it. And so I began my sojourn as an omnivore. With chillies, of course.
I was in heaven.
Today, it looks very likely that I will become a vegetarian again. Not for reasons of spiritual belief or taste or health or personal affordability. It’s for an altogether different, serious reason.
In common with those of you over fifty, I’ve thought more about my diet and nutrition for the past decade or so. Much of what I’ve been reading tends to reinforce the Michael Pollan mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.
Also in common with many of you, I’ve been concerned about climate change and what I should do about it, how to deal with my personal and petty hypocrisies in that context as an inhabitant of this earth. Which is how I landed up reading about sustainable nutrition, starting with Jonathan Safran Foer’s lesser-known book Eating Animals.
I was travelling back from San Francisco recently, and had the good fortune to sit next to someone who worked on sustainable nutrition as her day job. Which meant, unlike me, she really knew something about the subject. And she confirmed my fears: if we continue as we are, we will hit the fresh water wall long before we hit the climate change wall.
Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink may be a rime for our times and not just for ancient mariners.
Climate change and water. Two thorny problems that are going to worsen unless we learn to work together across nations and cultures and geographies, across social and economic classes, independent of our political and religious persuasions and beliefs.
These are just two of the biggies: others on the list include nutrition, health and wellbeing. All these in turn then have a whole slew of interrelated topics ranging from GM crops through to hydraulic fracturing.
When I was a teenager my grandfather told me that I might belong to the generation of “peak longevity” and I laughed at him. I don’t any more.
That’s part of the reason why I spend so much time looking into a wide interconnected area that covers platforms, architecture, education, organisation, communities, collaboration, collective intelligence, “emergence”, innovation, knowledge management, data and analytics, visualisation, search, identity, open source, open data, the internet, intellectual property, privacy, sharing, altruism, behavioural economics, co-evolution, group selection. That’s why I’m fascinated by the very notion of Web Science.
It’s a complex multi-layered subject. I shall resist the temptation to call it “nuanced”, having had to fight off a grimace when I hear others use that word in similar contexts.
Which is where Robin Chase’s new book Peers Inc comes in.
I know Robin quite well, and I’ve had the chance to spend time chatting over what she’s been writing about while she wrote it. And as a result I’ve been really looking forward to getting my hands on the book. So much so that when it arrived yesterday, I read through it in one long occasionally-interrupted sitting.
I’m glad I did so. Because I’m going to be reading it again, very soon. Adding to the pencil-marks already in there, annotating here and there. I found it fascinating.
An aside about reviewing books. I’ve tended to avoid summarising a book while reviewing it; instead, I try and explain why I like a book, referring to what it contains as needed but not actually detailing that content. Some of you may prefer to read a summary, in which case I will have failed you.
Peers Inc is fascinating firstly because it forms a bridge, a nexus, connecting many disparate threads, covering the “wide, interconnected area” I spoke of a few paragraphs ago. [If you want a bibliography of books to read in this context, then the one at the end of this book is a good place to start. If you want more then feel free to DM me @jobsworth on Twitter].
The most important bridge it covers is one that covers the Peers and the Inc, the essence of the title. Too often, dialogue in this space decays into dissonance. The usual polarisation of Big Bad Corporate and Pinko Utopian Treehugger, a debate which ends with everyone losing. This time the story ends differently.
Robin converts this continuous conflict, using everyday examples, into a collaborative framework where individuals and institutions can work harmoniously together. We’ve all been used to a Centralise What Is Common Federate What is Different approach in many parts of life; what the book does is to provide us an elegant yet practical way of dealing with the tension, all in the context of a hyperconnected world.
The book shows us, through a number of diverse examples, how platforms with industrial characteristics (representing the Inc) create value in partnership with talented people (the Peers) by making use of “excess capacity”. Robin calls these the “building blocks”.
George Gilder used to say that every economic era is characterised by its own unique abundances and scarcities; to succeed, businesses must make use of the abundances as well as the scarcities. Peers Inc frames “sharing” as “tapping into excess capacity”, a liquefaction of locked-up assets that allows value to be released and accreted. This is an intriguing construct, allowing for further consideration of the “excess”. What happens if someone makes capacity available sacrificially, when there was no excess to speak of? It is still sharing, but then it moves towards David Sloan Wilson’s views on altruism. [I am now part way through reading that for a second time, fascinating].
There is then a lot of rich detail on “execution” : what to consider when building platforms, how to identify excess capacity, how to attract peers, how miraculous things happen when these three come together. Those of you who are familiar with Sangeet Paul Choudhry’s and his colleagues’ work on Platform Thinking will find some encouraging connections; there are similar tangents with the works of Schmalensee and Evans on multi-sided markets. What’s exciting is that Robin looks at all this with a fresh perspective, one that combines the power of individuals and of institutions.
I was particularly taken with the way the book deals with the value of peer activity, how peers speed up innovation. Visions of Doc Searls wandering around as a sage incanting his NEA mantra “Nobody owns it, Everyone can use it, Anyone can change it”. A lot of people have written about platforms before; what this book does is to explain the symbiosis with peer activity really well.
The third section, on transforming our future, is where I did the most scribbling. How to take the ideas in the first bit and the lessons in the second bit to try and make an impact on our lives, on those of our children, and on those of our children’s children. [Having recently become a grandfather, this means a lot to me personally].
It’s written as if it was a challenge to the reader. Ask not what your world can do for you. Ask what you can do for your world, especially for the generations to come. That’s my paraphrase, so don’t blame the author for it.
Which is why, once I understood Robin’s climate change motivation, I found myself thinking seriously about the water issue as well. Generations to come. And that brings me to my next point in this review. Participation.
The book represents the start of a journey I’m going to enjoy being part of. Every one of you can do that as well. Just go here.
At the end of the book, Robin presents us with a number of conclusions, all worth reading and spending deeper time on. I am particularly interested in one to do with taxing heavily at the platform level. There is a need to ensure that the value generated by the miracle of the building blocks does not go disproportionately to the platform; without that, inequality must rise. Up to now, I have worked on the belief that there is a self-correcting mechanism in place: if peers don’t share in the wealth generated, the platform runs out of steam over time because the demand side dries up. It’s something I need to pore over, which is why I will be reading it again soon.
Something else occurred to me as I read the book.
No, not the book. The stuff below. [Photo courtesy Jayanand].
When dealing with the three building blocks, the book takes us carefully and instructively through a slice/aggregate/make open cycle, showing how that allows excess capacity to be collated and made easily usable. And it made me think of rubbish and recycling. Right now the whole recycling business looks broken, if the landfills that scar this earth are anything to go by. Lots of well-meaning people separating all kinds of things that then end up in one unsightly mess somewhere ostensibly out of sight of most people, and then making an embarrassing appearance when least wanted.
Waste is an inelegant form of excess. Nowadays, when I select ingredients for cooking, one of the things I do is weigh up how much of what I’m buying is destined not to be used by me. Some of the packaging is artificial, some natural. One needs artificial recycling, the other making into compost. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that the right platform from Inc will empower Peers to sort this problem out once and for all, by making waste collection and filtering a proper edge activity, and by creating exchange or auction based mechanisms to discover inventory, price and quantity.
Those are the kinds of ideas that floated around my head as I read the book. It touches on many things we’re all thinking about, but puts them together in a three-building-block framework that is pragmatic and useful.
That framework represents an AND in a world dominated by EITHER/OR. Individuals AND corporates. Digital AND physical. Local AND global. Every time the book comes to an either/or, it makes an and of it, and that is incredibly useful when it comes to dialogue and debate on this and related subjects.
None of this is easy. Every time someone mentions digital business as being disruptive, there are those whose eyes, minds and hearts glaze over. Every time someone mentions sharing, abundance and communities, there are those who exhibit similar responses.
This book is for them. It provides a sensible way to look at the world we live in from a digital perspective, without it being all about profit or all not about profit.
We need equanimity, facts, balance when we debate many of the global issues we face. This is exemplified by the Bruce Schneier quote somewhere in the middle:
Between the quick and the strong, what we need is a stalemate. We need a proper balance between institutional and distributed power. The more we can balance power among various groups, the more stable society will be.
This book is for everyone who thinks the statement above makes sense. So go buy it now and read it.
A coda. If you’ve made it this far. I decided to write my first Amazon review, and wanted it to be much shorter and punchier than this post. So this is what I said there:
Been looking forward to this book for some time, and I wasn’t disappointed. The three-building-block model of looking at current business models in a hyperconnected world: peers, platforms and excess capacity: is a very useful way of approaching it. The tips on how to build sustainable businesses using these blocks are considered and valuable; and the section on implications for the future and what we can do about it is challenging and inspiring. All in all an excellent book covering some very important ground.