Understanding The Now

While 2016 has been an annus horribilis overall (unless you’re a racist, in which case, it’s probably a magical time to be alive), it has a been a great year for books helping us attempt to understand the heady times we live in.

Most people would agree that we live in a state of rapid change. In their book Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe call it “exponential times” due to asymmetry (small can now beat big), complexity (interconnectedness at scale) and uncertainty (our existing institutions haven’t evolved to handle current situation). This provokes many questions, but one immediate one is: will this continue?

In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly answers this with a resounding “yes.” The book outlines the twelve technological forces that will keep the rate of change high for the foreseeable future. Kelly, an original Wired editor, is an accomplished writer and technologist, leading to spare sentences full of insight such as:

We are moving away from the world of fixed nouns and toward a world of fluid verbs.

In the intangible digital realm, nothing is static or fixed. Everything is becoming.

Technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades.

In this era of “becoming,” everyone becomes a newbie. Worse, we will be newbies forever. That should keep us humble.

Kelly’s thesis is that we are moving into a world called Protopia where there is a constant, steady accumulation of positive changes, but similarly an increase in new problems. The net is positive, so society advances. We all get mobile phones with the internet but have to listen to occasional idiots shout into their Bluetooth headsets while walking down the street.

Kelly’s book dives deep into the twelve forces and backs each up with a wealth of sometimes obscure information. Printing drove the number of word available from 50,000 in Old English to over 1,000,000 today! Dematerialization means that one kilogram of inputs produced $1.64 in GDP in 1977 and $3.58 in 2000!

These stats are neither cocktail party fodder nor petty stats, rather an attempt to demonstrate the inexorable march of technology and illustrate that we are nowhere near the end of the path.

Kelly also gets full points for offering predictions of what the future will look like – and acknowledging both that futurists are almost always comically wrong and he is essentially guaranteed to be incorrect. This leads to paragraphs like the following:

If you’d like to have a vivid picture of someone interacting with a portable device in the year 2050, imagine them using their eyes to visually “select” from a set of rapidly flickering options on the screen, confirming with lazy audible grunts, and speedily fluttering their hands in their laps or at their waist. A person mumbling to herself while her hands dance in front of her will be the signal in the future that she is working on her computer.

If you had to distill what this means for humanity, Kelly attempts to summarize it in a few sentences:

We are marching inexorably toward firmly connecting all humans and all machines into a global matrix. This matrix is not an artifact, but a process. Our new supernetwork is a standing wave of change that steadily spills forward new arrangements of our needs and desires.

A key notion here is that of a “matrix.” This is a reference to networks and Joshua Ramo wrote The Seventh Sense to describe networks and their implications for the K Street crowd.

His thesis is that networks represent a fundamental change in the distribution of power. A small group of terrorists called ISIS can use networks to take on all of Western society in a completely asymmetrical game. ISIS is small and geographically isolated but as they tap into networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Telegram a phase change occurs and a more complex organization with disproportionate reach emerges.

Ramo has one critical insight for policy makers: whoever has the biggest network wins. The reason, is that networks compress time, enabling the biggest network to sustain its advantage as its members save time, creating a virtuous cycle where the big get bigger.

This is a simple sentence but it has profound implications. Like Kelly, Ramo offers a few speculative suggestions, but his are focused on how America can create networks to maintain political advantage. (As a reader I love these; speculative narratives are a great mechanism for reinforcing what the author means)

Examples? Retool the NIH and global affiliates to create a network of learning centers. Membership in the network means you share info and get access to that of others. Or have the State Department create a digital currency (a la Bitcoin) backed by US dollars (not a al Bitcoin). Give the digital currency directly to people in need and simply cancel digital dollars if taken by middlemen/corrupt officials. The network trumps all and no physical dollars need ever leave America.

The book is thought-provoking as it is the first attempt I have ever seen to apply the lessons of the Internet to government policy. We’ve seen the use of the Internet to get politicians elected but I’d argue it hasn’t materially changed their policy. Ramo’s book portends a networked political future.

This networked future isn’t just complicated, it’s complex. Samuel Arbesman’s book Overcomplicated outlines what this means and how to handle it.

A complicated system has a lot of parts but is predictable (a jet engine) whereas a complex system has feedback loops between the components making it unpredictable (the weather). He shows how systems everywhere – the stock market, air traffic control, Toyota’s brake systems – have accumulated so much interrelated cruft that complex systems pop up everywhere.

He cites Danny Hillis (a favored practitioner and philosopher of all the authors) in stating: “Our technology has gotten so complex that we no longer can understand it or fully control it. We have entered the Age of Entanglement. . . . Each expert knows a piece of the puzzle, but the big picture is too big to comprehend.”

Arbesman cites example after example of modern complexity and then offers an approach for managing it. Essentially, look to biological systems and embrace the fact that you will not know how everything works:

We must work to maintain two opposing states: mystery without wonder and wonder without mystery. The first requires that we strive to eliminate our ignorance, rather than simply reveling in it. And the second means that once we understand something, we do not take it for granted.

If this sounds a little Zen-like, then you will hate the recommendations of Ito and Howe in Whiplash. They offer nine principles – each of which is almost a koan – to navigate the exponential age. Emergence over authority. Pull over push. Compasses over maps. Practice over theory. Resilience over strength. etc.

The lens through which they see the world is the MIT Media Lab; Ito is the director and Howe a visiting scholar. They consider it-not unreasonably-a window into a possible model for the future and have tried to distill what they have learned into a series of principles.

There principles are definitely the most controversial part of any of the four books mentioned in this post. Since they are offering a way to navigate the future they lack the tested empiricism of the other authors. You are left with a sense of “trust me” with some of their recommendations but I see several of them embedded in what has made my employer successful so I am more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I appreciate the authors’ humility when they closed their book with an admission that they’re not prophets but guides:

We’re not trying to sell you a way to organize your workdays or an exercise regimen, and we’re definitely not trying to make you believe in our vision of the future, because we don’t have one, other than a firm belief it will be very, very different from the world we inhabit right now. We do have an argument to make: Innovation isn’t about learning how to use social media to generate sales leads. And modifying a business for a networked globe will require more than buying fancy teleconferencing gear for your management team. Instead, we think it requires a deeper, more fundamental shift: an entirely new mode of thinking-a cognitive evolution on the scale of a quadruped learning to stand on its hind two feet.

There is an apocryphal Chinese curse that “may you live in interesting times.” We certainly live in interesting times and I’d encourage you to embrace it. These four books will help you do so.

Censorship

I’m currently reading Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It’s an epic Russian novel about World War II, centered on Stalingrad-but really a critique of the Soviet Union. There are many great passages in the book, but I’m particularly taken by this one about a former editor of a Communist paper:

Sagaydak had a particularly fine grasp of such matters. He had worked on a newspaper for a long time; first he had been responsible for the news pages, then for the agricultural section. After that he had worked for about two years as editor of one of the Kiev papers. He considered that the aim of his newspaper was to educate the reader-not indiscriminately to disseminate chaotic information about all kind of probably fortuitous events. In his role as editor Sagaydak might have considered it appropriate to pass over some event: a very bad harvest, an ideologically inconsistent poem, a formalist painting, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, an earthquake, or the destruction of a battleship. He might prefer to lose his eyes to a terrible fire in a mine or a tidal wave that had swept thousands of people off the face of the earth. In his view these events had no meaning and he saw no reason why he should bring them to the notice of readers, journalists and writers. Sometimes he would have to give his own explanation of an event; this was often boldly original and entirely contradictory to ordinary ways of thought. He himself felt that his power his skill and experience as an editor were revealed by his ability to bring to the consciousness of his readers only those ideas that were necessary and of true educational benefit.

This is a brilliant way of describing self-censorship and paternalism. One of the true joys of living in today’s Internet-connected world is that despite the Facebook algorithm telling you what to do, despite the trolls, despite the filter bubbles, despite the content farms, despite Google’s algorithm – the truth is still out there and if you’re willing to look, you can find it. No one can truly censor your inputs (although the Chinese sure are trying…).

Goodbye Penny, And Thanks For The Memories

Every day when I come home from work I take all my pocket change and throw it in a bowl. When the bowl is full, it’s time for me to roll the money and take it to the bank[1].

I’ve been doing this for years and it’s become my forced savings program.

On the weekend my bowl overflowed and as I sat down to wrap my change, it was tinged with a bit of sadness – because this is one of the last times I’ll every roll pennies.

Since last March’s budget announcement, the writing’s been on the wall and just over a week ago merchants stopped giving you back pennies – although I’ve noticed that my local loonie store [2] insists on still giving them.

So it was with somewhat misty eyes that I started rolling what might be my last roll of pennies. Well, not too misty because the reality is that it has never paid to roll pennies. The time it takes to roll them is ridiculous and let’s not even talk about the filth that ends up covering your hands.

But I’ve always secretly looked forward to rolling my pennies because they’re this echo of Canadian history that we carry around with us. When you go through and check the years (yup, I’m that anal), you find yourself carrying around totems from another time.

(And you don’t get this for nickels, dimes & quarters because they used to make them out of more valuable elements and those have all been melted down)

A few full bowls back, I found myself looking at a 1939 gem:

1939 Penny

This is before WW II people! (Coins are typically minted the year before)

My now-deceased grandfather was a young man.

There was a man on the coin.

On any given day, other than buildings, when do you come across anything from 1939?

And this happens all the time with the penny.

So, with this final (hopefully) rolling session, I thought I’d do a penny histogram and see how far back I could go. Here are the results:

Penny Histogram

Those are the few hundred pennies I had, organized by year. Here’s a graph for a better look:

Penny Histogram.png

2011 had a banner year; I wonder if the drop-off to 2012 was the Mint giving up on issuing new pennies. 1965 seems overrepresented, as does 1989.

But more interestingly, there’s an unbroken line there from 2012 to 1991 – and from then on to 1977. More than my entire life.

In fact, going I had pennies for all years from 1965-2012 with the exception of 1990, 1976, 1971, 1970 and 1967 (Did the Montreal Olympics and the Centennial change the currency?).

I’ll miss this little thread of everyday history-although I won’t miss rolling it.

Penny Histogram

[1] It drives me nuts that I have to roll my money to deposit it. When I lived in New York, you could go into a TD (formerly Commerce Bancorp) and dump your coins into a big machine. They’d give you a receipt for cash, even if you weren’t an account holder.

In fact, banking down there is just so much easier. If you maintain a balance of $100, you get free checking. That’s all, just $100 a month. Almost pocket change:

US Screen Shot

In Canada, the minimum balance for them to waive the monthly fee is $1,500:

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 7.10.57 PM.png

What a fucking joke. I hope all these banks go bankrupt when the Canadian housing bubble collapses.

[2] A moment of silence for the loonie store. Inflation’s forced most of them to become “loonie plus” stores and now the end of the penny’s forcing them up even faster…

Contrasts

Right now I’m reading Empires of Light. It’s the fascinating tale of how the world was electrified. Not “electrified” in the sense of “the Beatles are coming to town!” but rather, literally, why I can flip a switch and the lights go on in my house.

This tale could be utterly pedantic – for instance, “first we wired up Wall Street, then we went up 1st Avenue”, etc. but it’s not. Rather, it’s the story of all the people behind this massive undertaking: their dreams, their quirks, their greed and the alliances and factions between them.

The central characters are Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Edison is the quintessential scrappy American inventor while Tesla is the refined, sophisticated European scientist. I absolutely loved this paragraph where the author writes about what each thought of the other:

…Far worse, believed Tesla, was Edison’s approach to science: “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search…His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of his labor.” Edison, in turn, dismissed Tesla as a “poet of science” whose ideas were “magnificent but utterly impractical.”

I love the stereotypes they throw at each other (and this is in the 1880’s). For what it’s worth, Tesla’s ideas won, but it took American money and business acumen to make them win – plus he died broke. Edison’s technology lost the war, but lives on (it powers the computer I’m writing this on) and so does his company: General Electric was formed out of Edison’s many holdings.

Great Stories From Hip-Hop

I recently finished Can’t Stop Won’t Stop , Jeff Chang‘s history of hip-hop music. The writing is of variable quality, but the book’s a phenomenal read because the stories are just so damn strong.

I’m not going to review the book here (Amazon does a great job) – and hey, you should read it yourself – rather, I thought I’d share two of the many great anecdotes from the book.

The first regards The Clash and their NYC tour of 1981 (NYC was good to them; the legendary cover of London Calling came from the ’79 tour). The Clash always sought influences outside of rock ‘n roll (half their hits are reggae covers) and here’s what they did on that tour:

[The Clash] were set to play eight nights in June 1981 at an aging Times Square disco, the Bonds International, and they announced their stand with a dramatic unfurling of a magnificent banner painted by FUTURA. But on the eve of their opening, the fire department threatened to shut down the club for overselling the shows, and the fans finally had their white riot when mounted police stormed down Broadway to meet the punks in the street.

The Clash compromised by agreeing to perform eleven additional gigs, and hurried to find opening acts. In yet another naive act of solidarity, they booked Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But, as Michael Hill wrote in The Village Voice, “Rather than achieve a cultural crossover, it threatened to widen the gap.”

When Flash and the Furious Five stepped onstage on The Clash’s opening night, the white punks stood bewildered as Flash began his “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” routine on three turntables. Then the Furious Five, dressed in fly leather suits, jumped onstage and started rapping and dancing. Some in the crowd began shouting in disgust. They hadn’t come to see no disco. When Flash paused so that the Five could try to regain the crowd, the crew found themselves ducking a hail of beer cups and spit. The next night, dressed down this time in street clothes, they suffered the same reception. They left the stage angrily with Melle Mel admonishing, “Some of you-not all of you, but some of you-are stupid”, never to return.

Most music fans I know would give their eye teeth to see The Clash and Grandmaster Flash on the same bill, but the world wasn’t ready for it in ’81. Some things are just ahead of their time.

The other great story regards why hip-hop was able to become an unstoppable cultural force. It started out as a NYC local sound and was actually competing against other regional sounds – notably Washington D.C.’s go-go. Go-go is basically party music and so was a lot of early hip-hop (Rapper’s Delight and The Breaks anyone?) so why was hip-hop able to pop while you’ve never heard of go-go?

Despite the best efforts of Chuck [Brown], E.U., Trouble Funk and Rare Essence, go-go never crossed over. When the ’90s came, New York execs rushed to sign hip-hop acts and stopped returning D.C. artists’ phone calls. Go-go survived as one of the last independent, indigenous Black youth cultures.

It was an industrial-era music for a postindustrial era. Just as it was when Chuck Brown walked out of Lorton, bands’ fierce competition to remain atop the club scene remained the primary engine of go-go music. Making records with three-minute hit singles, the thing the music industry was most concerned with, was an afterthought. Economics partly explains why, after the 1980s, hip-hop went global and go-go remained local.

But there was also something else, something which Reo Edwards put like this: “I was talking to a go-go songwriter one time. I said, ‘Man, you need a verse here.’ The guy said, ‘The rototom‘s talking! Hear the rototom?’ there, the rototom telling the story.’ Okay. Alright. You know what the rototom is saying. Maybe the people in the audience know what the rototom saying. But the people in Baltimore don’t know what the hell that dang rototom is saying!”

He shakes his head. “Go-go’s got the same problem today as it did back then. You don’t have no good storylines. Hip-hop,” he pauses for emphasis, “tells stories.”

I’ve always loved the stories told by great hip-hop song (I’m thinking The Message, C.R.E.A.M., One Love, Hate It or Love It) and think they’re some of the most powerful narratives ever in song. Hip-hop’s domination is, in part, due to the power of storytelling.