What innovation?

For years I have found myself shouting at the TV when Bill Gates or someone else from Microsoft has talked about legislators or judges interfering with their “freedom to innovate”. At the heart of my shouting has always been the question, “what innovation?”
The formidable John Naughton answers that question in an article in the Observer like this:
“…monopolists don’t innovate. Microsoft is no exception. The reason its claims to be on the leading edge are accepted by politicians such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair is that they know so little about technology. In fact, a close examination of Microsoft’s corporate history reveals the extent to which this innovation propaganda is, well, hooey.”
He then goes on to list Microsoft’s “innovations” and where they came from.

Microsoft is a formidable business machine and has used it’s ownership of computer standards and the cash that generates with enormous skill to maintain it’s dominant position at the desktop, but an innovator it is not.
Bill Gates might want to reflect on the fate of Technicolor, which actually was an innovative company, but like Microsoft abused it’s monopoly.
At one time, if you wanted to make a movie in colour you had to go Technicolor and put up with it’s arrogant demands. When Kodak produced Eastman Color, which gave other Film Labs an opportunity to compete on more or less equal terms, Technicolor saw it’s monopoly position crumble away.
Could Linux be Microsoft’s Eastman Color?

No good deed goes unpunished

Some months ago I was writing about the death of my friend Rosie Dalziel and said:
“…while my sympathies and loyalties are with the innovators, recognising the frustrations and loneliness they often have to endure, the barriers to genuine innovations may be a necessary and desirable thing. We need a measure of stability to be able to lead meaningful lives. If innovation was easier we would find ourselves overwhelmed by change. So it may be that the barriers and obstacles face by people trying to do new things are the filters that enable us to absorb the amount of deep change we can cope with at any one time.”
A theme that was echoed in Michael McDonough‘s “Top Ten Things They Never Taught Me in Design School”:
“8. The road to hell is paved with good intentions; or, no good deed goes unpunished.
The world is not set up to facilitate the best any more than it is set up to facilitate the worst. It doesn?t depend on brilliance or innovation because if it did, the system would be unpredictable. It requires averages and predictables. So, good deeds and brilliant ideas go against the grain of the social contract almost by definition. They will be challenged and will require enormous effort to succeed. Most fail. Expect to work hard, expect to fail a few times, and expect to be rejected. Our work is like martial arts or military strategy: Never underestimate your opponent. If you believe in excellence, your opponent will pretty much be everything.”

Readers might like to compare McDonough’s list with Bruce Mau’‘s “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”

Cherry trees & design

William McDonough is my kind of designer. Any designer who answers the question, “Where do you most like being? ” by replying, “I like being on my back with my child on my stomach – in the woods, in the city, wherever. So long as we’re both laughing.” is likely to get my vote. All the more so when earlier in the interview he says:
“We need to have fun to be effective. Eco-efficiency, where you try to reduce everything to zero, is not much fun. And nature itself is not that efficient. It’s effective. Take a cherry tree in the spring. It’s not efficient – how many blossoms does it need to regenerate? But it is effective: it makes cherries. We celebrate the cherry tree not for its efficiency, but for its effectiveness – and for its beauty. Its materials are in constant flow, and all those thousands of useless cherry blossoms look gorgeous. Then they fall to the ground and become soil again, so there’s no problem. We can celebrate abundance where it is ecologically intelligent.”
I have come across William McDonough before, but up until now I didn’t take him seriously. Now after reading this interview in the New Scientist I think I may have to think again.

Justin’s links

Many centuries ago when I first began playing with Mosaic, one of the web sites I went to a lot was Justin’s links. What I liked about his site was that it was like a window to all sorts of interesting stuff I wouldn’t have noticed or come across otherwise. When I started writing here one of the things I wanted to do was to have it rich in links to people and ideas I found interesting on the grounds that any readers I might have would find them interesting too. So I was really pleased to find the other day that Justin was still going and still linking. The net and the web is such a transient space I love it when I find some continuity.

Another kind of downshifting

Robert Sapolsky has an extremely interesting interview in Edge where he covers a lot of fascinating stuff. The whole interview is well worth a careful read, but the bits that really caught my interest and that I’ve quoted at length, begins:
“For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man?if I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is important?balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm of humans. What’s clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don’t waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that’s not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25.”

Continue reading Another kind of downshifting

Unjustified terror

These are anxious times. The question is what should we really be anxious about? If we were totally rational creatures we would be more anxious about getting into a car or going into our kitchen than we would about catching a train or a plane. But we are not, and it is right that we are not. We have to accept that there is some level of risk in life. Where we become dumb is in giving exceptional events a greater weight in terms of our personal safety than they deserve.
What happened in Madrid was awful and unforgivable. The response of the Spanish in taking to the streets in solidarity was a magnificent human answer to the twisted logic of the bombers – a democratic response.
But as we have seen over and over again there is a kind of symbiosis between the people who plant bombs and the people in authority whose instincts are essential anti-democratic. The number of voices arguing that the rights won by our ancestors at a cost to their liberties and lives must be sacrificed to guard against the possibility of exceptional events occurring is rising. Moves in that direction are dangerous and, as history has shown us, ineffective. And those seductive voices that promise security should make us afraid – our freedoms are more fragile and more easily eroded than we sometimes imagine.
“So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Franklin Roosevelt, March 4, 1933. First inaugural address.

Illusions of safety

Malcolm Gladwell hasn’t put up a new article on his site for several months. So I had a real sense of pleasure when I saw that there was a new one. The title “Big and Bad:How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety”, looked reasonably promising. As I read on I saw that it subject had more and more relevance to some wider stuff I have been thinking about. (This is not that unexpected Gladwell’s pieces often have a much wider resonance than just the subject they are focussed on.) Read it yourself and see if you agree. I will be returning to this theme very soon.