Bulletin 15 March 2019. On Rubik’s Cubes and Not-so-accidental Empires

Innovation is spatial, and success abhors a vacuum. Sorry, I just had to write that down because, as I was thinking about what to write this week, it suddenly came to me and made perfect sense. Now all I have to work out is what the heck I was on about. 

What an interesting industry to work in. Back in the day, I chose to do a computational science degree largely because I found it interesting, but with no real clue what it was all about. If someone had said to me that everything was going to depend on computers in a few decades, I might have paid more attention to my studies and less to the art of pool playing. Ah, hindsight. I might also have bought a few shares. 

Back in the day, though, the future was by no means clear. A trend towards ‘open systems’ was happening; personal computers were finding their place; but the big old tech companies still held a great deal of sway. I could list them but most have gone. And meanwhile, every single possible new direction was presented as a game-changing paradigm shift. 

It was, and continues to be, difficult to separate the signal from the noise, the correct predictions from the elephant’s graveyard of possibility. On the upside, I have come to realise that neither matters as much as what I shall characterise as the spatial nature of innovation. Aaaaand, here we go. 

Why does a good idea happen? Sometimes it is because it is so brilliant in itself, that it gains instant recognition — like the Rubik’s cube, for example. In tech, such examples are the absolute exception; more likely are examples that grow with a kind of groundswell, as the solution responds to a previously unresolved need. 

Most of the “game-changing paradigm shifts” that we see fall into this category, from RESTful interfaces to tablet computers, cloud computing to social media. The notion of a groundswell has been documented before. However I’ve not seen, hear or read anything about the nature of the new spaces that we create with innovation, and how what some see as success are actually more of a land-grab.

I think Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg get this, which is why they have looked to take as much as they could, at any cost, before anyone thinks to impose boundaries. For Bezos, it’s all business, driving his “Day 1” philosophy, a strategy which still looks like it has a way to run. For Zuckerberg meanwhile, it has been about playing fast and loose with privacy. He’s been getting it in the neck recently, but so what? His empire (and fortune) has already been built. He expanded to fill a space, and (in the short term at least) is unlikely to be pushed out. 

I could have named other names, but pretty much every big cheese in the industry has achieved success by following this approach. Under Steve Jobs, Apple created an exclusivity-based space but did not succeed at its social networking efforts, which has meant it can now bang the privacy drum. Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica’s rapid rise and almost immediate fall followed the same tactic. 

I know, I’m in danger of stating some self-evident principles of marketing, but there’s something deeper going on than just defining a market segment, pushing it through ad campaigns and thought leadership, getting an analyst firm to name it and then running with it until the world gets bored. That’s not the same as a new innovation leading to the creation of a part-technological, part-cultural void which is hungry to be filled. 

In terms of predictions, let’s take Artificial Intelligence, which is currently experiencing precisely the stuff listed in the previous paragraph. However, we are yet to see behavioural changes caused through some mainstream adoption of AI: these will create a new space, which some, currently unnamed organisation will fill. I’m guessing the same will happen with a still-to-be-developed use case of Blockchain. 

This makes things less about being in the right place at the right time, and more about being able to recognise a vacuum and do something with it. Sure, it’s a good business tip — “Go where the dark matter’s going to be” or somesuch — but it’s also a fundamental missing piece from our lawmaking and governance. As long as we miss this, our national and international rules, codes of conduct and general conscience will be constantly behind the curve. 


Smart Shift: Thanks for the (community) memory

This week’s excerpt is all about peace, love and the starting point for much of what we see as the ‘open’ aspects of technology. “While this debate will run and run, the dialogue between innovation and community looks like it will continue into the future.” As also the darker uses of technology: while this bulletin does not directly cover events such as the devastating and evil shootings in New Zealand, I am racking my brain at how it could be directed towards the light. 


Thanks for reading. Jon

Also published on Medium.

Bulletin 15 March 2019. On Rubik’s Cubes and Not-so-accidental Empires

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