Warning: Contains Warnings

Change involves risk. When the change is an innovation the quantum of risk increases. And when the change is an invention the quantum of risk is greater still.

All projects involve risk. People respond to risk differently.

Some people belong to the Zaphod Beeblebrox class: their attitude to risk is to don the appropriate technology, which in Zaphod’s case was the Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses. At the first sign of danger they turn completely opaque.

Some people prefer selective Stockholm Syndrome. They empathise so much with the creators of the original risks that they perceive alternatives as riskier.

Yet others feel safer in the Nanny State. They don’t worry about risk. They have no risk to worry about. They aren’t allowed to take any risks.

A sad state of affairs.

Some of this is caused by blame cultures. I was speaking to Kevin Marks earlier this evening about this and related issues, and he referred me to this Etsy post: Blameless PostMortems and a Just Culture.

Sometimes the cause is even more insidious: wilful blindness, again in a Kevin-referred post.

The trigger for our conversation was a recent video doing the rounds, Eben Moglen at F2C, talking about innovation under austerity.

If you haven’t seen the video, please do so. It’s long, but it’s worth it. You may not agree with all of it, but it’s still worth it.

Youth is often the engine of innovation, particularly affordable innovation. Which, as Eben Moglen points out, is what is needed at a time of austerity.

It is possible to innovate in austerity, but only if the barriers to entry are kept down.

Which means allowing people to hack.

Which causes other problems.

If you allow people to hack, people will hack. And you can’t stop people hacking. Some people want hackability to be turned on and off, to be controllable. That’s not always easy. It is part of the reason why institutional buyers shied away from open source a decade ago, and why they find Android a challenge today. Loss of control. [There’s a more insidious reason, not having anyone to blame and not willing to carry responsibility].

Sometimes the state decides that hacking is unsafe. That people should not be allowed to get under the hood, they might get hurt. Or something like that. So the nanny state encourages unhackability. Lockdowns. Sealed units. Warning: Contains Nuts.

Yet as Eben says innovation at a time like this is absolutely critical. So what do we do?

We need to make hacking safer. Allow the Maker Generation to make mistakes while keeping the consequences of those mistakes at affordable levels. Like open source communities, where gains are socialised and losses are privatised. Like teaching children about safe hacking.

Clay Shirky once remarked that Wikipedia succeeded because the cost of repair was kept at least as low as the cost of damage: the undo button. When the cost of repair exceeds the cost of damage, the consequences are predictable. Chewing gum on sidewalks. Graffiti on walls.

We need to build “undo” functionality into more and more things, so that people can experiment without worry about blame or consequences. We spend a lot of time teaching our children about consequences. Maybe it’s time we spent some of our energy making sure there are no consequences, or at the very least minimising the consequences.

Innovation is our lifeblood. Particularly during difficult economic times, radical innovation is an imperative. For radical innovation to happen, we have to provide the most likely innovators, our youth, with the ability to innovate, unfettered, blame-free, where failure is seen as learning.

Instead, we pass legislation to tell people that peanut butter contains nuts. And we encourage enterprise buyers to take the safe option: as the saying goes, nobody got fired for buying IBM. The names have changed. Microsoft. SAP. Oracle. But the principle’s the same. Take no risks. Avoid change. You will live longer. Even if your company dies as a result.

Addendum: Kevin was writing something in parallel about the “undo” culture, a must-read post: Keep ALL the versions.


8 thoughts on “Warning: Contains Warnings”

  1. Agreed except for one key point – why only focus on getting/letting the “youth” to hack and experiment and innovate?

    Why not focus on everyone?

    Innovation comes in many forms and as a result of many different types of interactions and variations – focusing only on the innovations driven by the interests and passions of the “youth” in our culture will miss many other fertile sources of innovation. Innovations driven by experience, by exposure to many ideas (and many cultures), to having watched change happen and innovations driven by technology finally catching up to ideas that have been being thought about not for weeks or months but for decades.

    I think we – companies and individuals – should be seeking ways to inspire hacking, experimentation and seeking out innovation by hackers of all ages – and in particular from older adults as well as our youth. Some teams will form across generations – and likely lead to ideas neither group could have come up with on their own – but also many teams and individuals will simply pursue passionate ideas – and while most will fail (and thus your point about the consequences of failure are really important) the successes will be both inspiring and world changing.

    I think the key issue is that we associate “learning” with the young – that we all to often believe the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. I’m neither old nor young (I’m in my late 30’s) but I think our focus of seeking innovation (and for the most part only celebrating it when it comes from youth) is a very serious issue facing the technology world in particular – it permeates our hiring practices, it is all to common in our media and it is all too commonly believed by investors.

  2. This post reminds me about the state of Digitalbritain – The digital economy act.
    The cabinets.
    What we need is men of fibre.
    With towels.

  3. @shannon @dominic I didn’t think my post was *only* about youth. “It is possible to innovate in austerity, but only if the barriers to entry are kept down.

    Which means allowing people to hack.” “We need to build “undo” functionality into more and more things, so that people can experiment without worry about blame or consequences.”

    When I mention youth, it is as part of a whole: “Youth is often the engine of innovation, particularly affordable innovation” “For radical innovation to happen, we have to provide the most likely innovators, our youth, with the ability to innovate, unfettered, blame-free, where failure is seen as learning.”

    I did not mean the post to be about the exclusion of others, but I did want to focus on youth. They’re the “most likely”, given a lack of the anchors and frames the rest of us have, given they’re staring down the barrel of unemployment in many environments, and given they have more incentive than most others for change…. as long as they have access to the tools of change.

    If, despite my language, I came across as talking solely about youth, my bad. If I came across as focusing on youth more than others, then that is what I meant to do.

  4. Picky point: I’m inclined to think your peanut butter label is fictional, but if not, the label is either inaccurate, or badly needed. Peanuts are legumes, not nuts; peanut butter contains peanuts. People with serious tree nut allergies often have no problem with peanuts (had a housemate like that once), while people with potentially fatal peanut allergies often use substitute almond butter for peanut butter. When the same equipment is used to produce both products, warning of potential cross-contamination is perfectly reasonable precaution, since minor exposures can cause serious consequences for people with these allergies.

    Aren’t we supposed to be in favor of empowerment through information? The problems start when we try to order society to eliminate risk for a very few individuals, not when we empower them to protect themselves.

  5. @Gwen I live and learn. Thank you. First of all I wrote sloppily. The label said “Warning: Contains peanuts” and that is what irritated me. I should have stuck with that wording. And I did not know that the peanut was a legume; so my poor writing may have created an example of a potentially useful warning of cross-contamination with other “real” nuts. Peanut butter can and should contain peanuts. And having a warning that says it contains peanuts makes no sense to me, even after reading your comment. Am I making more sense now?

    I agree with your assertion of empowerment through information. But it has to be useful information rather than redundant information or even drivel.

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