Jaron Lanier on the Human Side of Technology

July 26, 2011

“I’m disappointed with the way the Internet has gone in the past ten years.  . . . I’ve always felt that the human-centered approach to computer science leads to more interesting, more exotic, more wild, and more heroic adventures than the machine-supremacy approach, where information is the highest goal.

“At the South by Southwest Interactive conference, in Austin, in March of 2010, Lanier gave a talk, before which he asked his audience not to blog, text, or tweet while he was speaking.  He later wrote that his message to the crowd had been:  “If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say.  This is what makes you exist.  If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?”‘

— From a profile of Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not A Gadget and one of the pioneers of virtual reality technology, in Jennifer Kahn, “The Visionary,” The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2011, pp.46-53.

Excerpt: The Spark for Groupon

July 12, 2011

The following excerpt is from “Groupon Therapy” by Lauren Etter in the August 2011 issue of Vanity Fair (available on newsstands now), in which Groupon co-founder and CEO Andrew Mason shares how his work in developing an earlier social action website called the Point, the cost of which had been underwritten by investor Eric Lefkofsky, evolved into Groupon, which is considered by many to be the leading group discount buying site on the Web, after:

“I’d always thought with the Point that I’m going for the big win and changing the world,” Mason says. . . . But the socially conscious efforts didn’t attract enough subscribers, and they fizzled.   By October 2008, the Point was on the verge of being shut down.

“Eric [Lefkofsky] was pressuring me to think radically differently and figure out a way to monetize the site,” Mason recalls. 

Mason had noticed that the most popular campaigns on the Point involved group buying.  He decided to set up a sub-business dedicated to commerce rather than ideals.  At first, Mason say, he thought the new business would just be a way to pay the bills.  His friend and co-worker Aaron With came up with the name Groupon — a fusion of the words “group” and “coupon.”

Mason credits Lefkofsky for the shift in his focus:   “He just created a splinter for me.  It was that agitation that he created that ultimately led to the formation of Groupon.”

Innovation Comes In Many Forms

May 22, 2011

Innovation frequently is the result of looking at an old problem in a new way.  Case in point, although far removed from the realm of technology, is an anecdote related in an article from last weekend’s The New York Times Magazine about Yukon Territory residents Shawn Ryan and Cathy Wood, who are among those leading the charge for what is turning into another Canadian gold rush.  

While the article’s author, Gary Wolf, who is also a contributing editor for Wired magazine, focuses most of his attention on their ups and downs at prospecting, the innovative resourcefulness of this couple is best summed up by the following excerpt:

“It is tough to be penniless in Dawson in the winter. Wood cleaned some houses and served as court bailiff when the judge came to town, but in February 1993, they were down to their last $5. At the employment center, Wood saw a notice for a job removing the snow from the roof of Diamond Tooth Gerties, the local casino, which opened for a brief winter season coinciding with a dog-sled race. The job was usually taken on by a team of local residents for thousands of dollars. Wood bid 500. Townspeople came out to see how the low bidders were going to do it. She and Ryan cleared the edges of the roof with shovels, then Ryan climbed to the top and jumped up and down like a monkey. Gravity did the rest. The expressions of surprise on the faces of the onlookers made Wood laugh. People in Dawson had to acknowledge that for people at the bottom of the status hierarchy — and there aren’t many rungs beneath mushroom picker — they had some unmistakable gifts.”

 Link:  Gary Wolf, “Gold Mania in the Yukon,” NY Times Magazine (May 15, 2011) 

Photo Credit: Finlay MacKay, NY Times

Twitter’s Challenge of Capitalizing on 160 Million Users

October 19, 2010

As is proven over and over again in the arena of early stage companies, just because such a company has developed a nifty piece of technology does not mean that the world will actually beat a path to its doorstep — at least not with money in tow.  It takes lots of hard work, skillful execution on a good business plan, and a fair amount of trial and error (and some luck) to bring that reality to bear.  So, it’s interesting to see the recent attention being devoted to the diligent efforts of the microblogging phenom Twitter as it finally seeks to define a viable revenue model for itself, much of which hinges, not unsurprisingly, on various forms of advertising. 

There are many lessons here about which any growth stage company can take heart.  In particular, I found the following observations, from a piece in last week’s NY Times, to be especially candid and revealing about the challenges faced by Twitter in its quest for an as-yet elusive revenue strategy:

“But many advertisers and executives say there are questions to be answered and experiments to be done before Twitter becomes a must-buy, if it ever does.

“Agencies are uneducated, brands are uneducated and, to a certain extent, Twitter is uneducated,” said Ian Schafer, chief of Deep Focus, an interactive marketing agency.  “There are no best practices.  There are just hunches about what will work.””

(NY Times, 10/11/10, p. B1)

Inventive Trial-and-Error: James Dyson’s Vacuum Cleaner

September 30, 2010

If you’ve been alert for the past few years, it would be difficult not to have seen one of the funky vacuum cleaners developed by James Dyson, the British engineer, inventor and entrepreneur.  The September 20, 2010  issue of the The New Yorker recently profiled Dyson and one of his latest inventions, the Air Multiplier fan.  A passage from that article caught my attention in light of a recent post on TechRazorBlog about iteration in the business process: 

In engineering his vacuum cleaner, Dyson followed the trial-and-error method developed by Thomas Edison in his Menlo Park invention factory.  He would build a prototype, test it, analyze why it failed, make one change, and build another prototype.  Dyson built 5,271 such prototypes over four years, until he had a machine that satisfied him. 

Wow!  That’s a lot of prototypes, which should make Dyson the king daddy of trial-and-error design.

Another Excellent IEI Program: David Cummings on Iteration

September 30, 2010

Earlier this month I attended a meeting of Atlanta’s Institute for Enterprise and Innovation (IEI), an organization with a lot of heart about which I’ve posted before (see TechRazorBlog, 4/25/10) at which the featured presenter was David Cummings, a serial entrepreneur whose Hannon Hill was listed as an Inc. 500 company several years ago and whose Shot Put Ventures is involved with funding so-called “seed stage” web services companies.  Cummings offered a number of useful insights and reminders about basic start up business blocking and tackling as he recounted how he and his business colleagues grew Hannon Hill into a substantial content management software company.  Among these, were:

  • He cited the iterative process in business as a key to success, which is the idea of continually going back to the drawing board to fine tune a particular business model or activity until the desired result or a profitable business model is achieved.
  • As his business grew his notion of what it meant for his business to be successful evolved from getting to a certain size and being able to sustain itself without his direct involvement to a much simpler notion of creating an environment where he and those he worked with could do good work with good people for good pay.
  • A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow — make the most of the product, the people, the situation that you have now rather than waiting for what you wish you had.   This is, of course, a variation on the idea about not letting the great be the enemy of the good.

There were other spot-on observations about challenges faced by bootstrapping entrepreneurs and approaches to overcoming those obstacles.  IEI is planning to record and archive its monthly presentations, so this is one worth checking out.

Collective Intelligence: Are Your Ideas Getting Out Enough?

June 30, 2010


A bit behind on this post, but an article on the notion of collective intelligence caught my attention from a late May issue of the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal.  Matt Ridley in “Humans:  Why They Triumphed” (WSJ, 5/22-23/10:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703691804575254533386933138.html?KEYWORDS=matt+ridley).  Ridley has put together an insightful piece that explores the importance of interactions between people and their ideas as being among the most critical factors to technological advancement over time. 

To quote Ridley:

“But the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative.

“In the modern world, innovation is a collective enterprise that relies on exchange. As Brian Arthur argues in his book “The Nature of Technology,” nearly all technologies are combinations of other technologies and new ideas come from swapping things and thoughts. (My favorite example is the camera pill—invented after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.) We tend to forget that trade and urbanization are the grand stimuli to invention, far more important than governments, money or individual genius. It is no coincidence that trade-obsessed cities—Tyre, Athens, Alexandria, Baghdad, Pisa, Amsterdam, London, Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, San Francisco—are the places where invention and discovery happened. Think of them as well-endowed collective brains.”

This idea neatly ties back to some observations shared by Joe Bankoff at an IEI Forum meeting about one of the keys to innovation being a group of diverse people working collectively on a shared problem.  (See Tech Razor, 4/25/10.)

Image Credit: Masterfile