“Not knowing is okay. In fact, we’ve entered an age where the admission of ignorance offers strategic advantages over expending resources - subcommittees and think tanks and sales forecasts - toward the increasingly futile goal of forecasting future events.”
The authors Joi Ito and Jeff Howe wrote Whiplash with one specific goal: to help individuals and institutions navigate a challenging and uncertain future. They assert that there is a major new release of our world operating system and we’re going to have to get used to it. They refer to this as the network age.
According to Ito and Howe, this new operating system is based on two irreducible facts that make up the kernel of the network age. The first is Moore’s law, according to which the number of integrated circuit performances double every 18 months. The second is Internet. The primary condition of the network era is not just rapid change, but constant change. And as change doesn’t care if you are ready or not, it has given rise to three conditions that govern our future:
Asymmetry – you can no longer assume that costs and benefits will be proportional to size.
Complexity – A large number of simple rules put together give rise to an adaptive complex system. As an example, an ant colony is a “super-organism” that behaves far beyond the capacity of any one ant within the system.
Uncertainty – What comes next? No one knows.
Ito and the Media Lab defined 9 principles to guide us through these uncertain times:
Emergence over Authority
Pull over Push
Compasses over Maps
Risk over Safety
Disobedience over Compliance
Practice over Theory
Diversity over Ability
Resilience over Strength
Systems over Objects
There is also a tenth principle that encompasses all the others: Learning over Education
In this book, the authors describe and explain each of the principles, chapter by chapter, illustrating them with exciting scientific and technological research subjects that are very often related to the research activities of the MIT Media Lab.
Learning over Education
"“Learning, we argue, is something you do for yourself. Education is something done to you.”"
Learning over Education is the tenth principle, and the one that might be closest to the core of the book’s mission. The “four Ps” of creative learning—Projects, Peers, Passion and Play—should be embraced by our educational system in order to find a fertile soil in the years ahead.
Practice over Theory is a principle that is put in action by educational systems when they allow students to engage in active learning, using, for example, tools like Scratch to learn the principles of computer programming by applying them to projects that interest them. Quest to Learn is a school that embraces this philosophy that can be summed up as “Children learn by doing,” a notion that can be traced through education pioneers like Maria Montessori and beyond.
While not all students in every classroom will become interested in the same things, allowing them to engage in interest-driven learning (practice) often helps them grapple with the more tedious but necessary aspects of the curriculum (theory), and leads them to a fully rounded educational experience. More than a decade of pedagogical research shows that learning out of context is very difficult.
And yet, we expect students to learn in isolation. We demand “no cheating” on tests where students are required to give the “correct” answer to an abstract problem, even though there‘s evidence that allowing students to collaborate on exams can improve learning outcomes. We teach kids to be punctual, obedient, predictable and orderly. We discourage play, or relegate it to recess periods. And yet when employers are asked what attributes they desire most in a new hire, they reliably list items such as creativity, sociability, inventiveness, passion and playfulness.
Why not amplify the sloppy, emotional, creative and organic nature of human beings—that together with artificial intelligence and automation—will create the workforce of the future?
Risk over Safety
"The potential benefits of focusing on risk over safety go well beyond monetary gain. As the cost of innovation falls, enabling more people to take risks on creating new products and businesses, the center of innovation shifts to the edges. This provides a host of new opportunities for people who were shut out of the old, hierarchical model of investment and product development."
What happens when a hardware business becomes a lot more like the software business? The rules change. When the cost to bring a product to market—or to simply bring an idea to a large audience—could drive an institution into bankruptcy, it makes sense to privilege safety over risk. But this is, quite dramatically, no longer the case.
The Internet has reversed this dynamic, and today it’s more expensive to secure an idea or a product than to produce it. In that case, risk should be privileged and embraced. Indeed an individual can now design, produce, and distribute multiple types of devices online (3D printers are a great example of this).
Decision makers who want to take advantage of such new opportunities are required to work quickly and get rid of the layers of permissions and approvals required by the traditional “command and control” management model. As the cost of innovation declines, the nature of risk changes. The innovators have to weigh the cost of doing something now against the cost of thinking about doing something later.
This is clearly a new paradigm, and when the cost of innovation becomes very low, trying to reduce losses is less important than trying to amplify your wins. If we consider the example of a company that spent 3 million dollars to finance a feasibility study about investing in a $600,000 project, we can perfectly understand the advantage of bending towards a more risky corporate culture.
The Risk over Safety principle is an agile and permissionless approach to innovation and many companies that follow it fail, but those that succeed do it before their competitors make it to the market.
Diversity over Ability
"This is the first example I know of game players solving a long-standing scientific problem."
In 2011, a breakthrough achievement was published in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. Researchers had succeeded in mapping the structure of an enzyme used by retroviruses similar to HIV. The astonishing part of the article was the fact that one of the group that contributed to the discovery was called “Foldit Void Crushers Group,” the name for a collective of video gamers.
This example highlights the fact that conventional management practice is often dead wrong about who is best suited for a task. Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, and an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack.
In a 2006 Wired article, Jeff Howe highlighted a radical new form of economic production, inspired by open-source software as Wikipedia, that he called crowdsourcing. Hobbyist and part-timers had a market for their efforts, and smart companies discovered ways to benefit from the talent of the crowd. When it works, crowdsourcing exhibits an almost magical efficacy and companies like NASA, the LEGO group and Samsung have integrated public contributions into the core of how they do business.
Ability is about looking for the experts, the best-trained people in a given discipline who are the best qualified to solve a problem in their specialty. Once they fail, we tend to look for other specialists. And we are astonished when they will fail again—they are trained in the same amazing schools, they use the same methods and share the same biases and blind spots.
Diversity is about extending and opening the boundaries. By increasing diversity in the teams that are working on a specific problematic, or using the power of the crowd, we increase quantitatively and qualitatively the workforce that is involved in the problem resolution. Diversity naturally occurs in a large group of people that constitutes a powerful knowledge network which obeys the rules of complex systems.
William Gibson once noted that the future is already here and that it’s just unevenly distributed. Joi Ito and Jeff Howe help to correct this through this book. They highlight principles which may be perceived as provocative through highly technical and scientific case studies.
Even if the word “innovation” is not very present, I would highly recommend this book to individuals or companies who are at work on reinventing themselves. It will both empower people, and provide them the tools to survive and even lead change in our faster future.
Which of the ten principles seems most intriguing to you? How can you exploit them in your personal and professional life?