Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

10 February 2011

Technology, Solution Transfer + Changing Human Expectations

If you don't know what this is, my heart weeps for you.

A few people have expressed concern about me going off the political deep-end.

I want to clarify something very important: Egypt at present is a topic of political relevance, but that's a little bit too simple. What's happening there is also a story about people manipulating a code that they were not intended to control. Crucially, they feel like they have the right to do it.

That teaches us important - and critical - lessons about how today's mainstream technology is affecting us and our expectations as hackers people. You know that this is true; you see it in enterprises that increasingly believe "getting" social media, or at least seeming to, is a dealbreaker, and it is. You knew that too.

Two days ago I was asked whether I agree Twitter can be considered "the voice of the people," and if so, whether I believe "Twitter" can construct a government. It's a question that immediately brings to mind the arbitrariness and disorganisation of the social networks that we frequent so often.

But it's condescending to leave it at that. Why have these particular social networks become so integral to communications?

Consider what they're composed of: raw data, a collected history of everything we're seeing, doing, feeling, touching, thinking, learning, witnessing and experiencing in real-time. And to what end? What are we doing all day long with this information?

Solution transfer. Solution transfer is the process of taking knowledge that would ordinarily only circulate one group and passing it to another. It's typically used in the context of R&D: where an enterprise may spend millions seeking a solution to problem X, it's possible that the problem has already been solved - in another industry entirely, for a completely unrelated purpose. If that data could flow freely between those two points, consider the time, labour and money that would be saved.

A quick example of solution transfer in action: in seeking a way to feed his enormous military, Napoleon organised a contest offering money to someone, anyone, who could make food mobile and less perishable. The canning process that resulted - which we still use today - was developed by a confectioner. That's not the kind of guy who rubs elbows with defense engineers.

We do this with each other every day. In lazily skimming my Twitter or Facebook, supposedly "wasting time," I'm ingesting the insights of mobile app developers, politicians, war journalists, innovation consultants, ad creatives, scientists and entrepreneurs the world over. It may not be immediately useful data but it all slips into my subconscious, that deep place where future thoughts are born.

Two things happen:
  • In using these technologies regularly, I feel more engaged and collaborative with others than I have ever felt in my life.
  • My day-to-day thoughts and ideas have taken on a different shape. My capacity to understand concepts beyond my classical training has expanded.
These are the seeds that enable people to self-organise across cultures and backgrounds ... and intellectually produce systems that, yes, can lead the way to a governing structure that simply make more sense.

This is not a new idea. The founding fathers of the United States approached the Constitution much like a science experiment, taking into account that no one among them knew what the perfect government was. For that reason they produced checks and balances on power and reinforced to the people of their time that this was a living document: they were free to throw out what didn't work, and keep what did, revising as they went.

An approach like this one is not beyond the capabilities of Egyptians who have stood together, risked their lives and livelihoods, for this long. It is not beyond the capability of anyone who has appropriated a message or manipulated information for sport - who's drawn a mustache on a billboard, pirated a film, mashed up a video, or jailbroken a phone. And certainly, if the government had done any constructive social media "listening" (instead of just trying to squash it), it would have seen unrest build and begin to articulate itself with more clarity, more specifity and more unity with every passing day.

But it is easy to be condescending when scrutinising a volatile body of people from a position of power, be you politician or C-suiter. Certainly, bodies of people have done some incredibly stupid and horrible things. (Consider the senseless bloodshed following the French Revolution and the liberation of slaves in the United States.) But by necessity I believe that we've evolved, and are evolving, in a positive direction overall.

It is not a bad thing that people can create their own media, access and broadcast unlimited amounts of information, attempt to right loud and visible wrongs, and compare the rights allotted to them to those of others around the world. All this can only improve the lot of humanity. That's not to say we'll ever be rid of malaise, but I do believe at some point we will look at this time in history, characterised by the lopsidedness of human rights in the world, and call it medieval.

That means the most progressive and harmonious path you can follow in your quest to innovate should be in the direction of structured and consistent collaboration with the people that you're serving, the people most passionate about what you do. Addressing their most aching concerns and deficits may not make your investors immediately happy, but it's certainly a nice alternative to facing revolt, open hostility, usurpation or total apathy.

This is not a cure-all. There may be a moment where you find your "software" is obsolete. (AOL comes to mind, as do certain 30-year-old despots.) That's fine. Don't try to wedge people into a dated model, either. Find something else or get out of the arena.

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