These Tumultuous Times

January 1, 2010

While governments can and have implemented strategic policies, sometimes of positive impact, most major governments will not be doing so for at least the next five years. They will be distracted by the crises that are inevitable in this chaotic age of disruption and restrained by the need to rebuild their fiscal flexibility. This does not deny that strategic policy responses are urgently needed across a variety of issues. But these policy initiatives, or call them reforms, will not occur yet. The systemic failures that will precipitate responses await us.

(Do not think of this as a pessimistic outlook. As issues and institutions drift toward meltdown, the optimist expects that the threat of apocalypse will actually and finally cause the needed reforms to occur.)

In the present circumstances, the vast majority of people will just put their heads down and cope as the best they can, scrambling for whatever transient advantage is nearby. But there will be three subsets of other persons.

One group, the Parasites, will see this tumult as an open invitation to lie and steal at ever greater scale. The age of the con is also upon us.

The next group, the Dealers, see themselves as geniuses at pivotal positions, able to manipulate the system to whatever purpose they wish. In fact, they will just add to the bedlam.  (A few dark souls will bridge the line between the Parasites and the Dealers.)

The third group, the Masters, will see opportunities through the fog and drifting debris, opportunities to build empires of extraordinary purpose and form. Sometimes they will act alone, sometimes in a small closely knit team and sometimes they will mobilize an army. No, they will not see everything with perfect clarity. Yes, they will make some mistakes. But their vision will be better than their competitors, their mistakes less deadly to them and the world around them.

What might the Masters see as they look forward? Why do they see opportunities to create where others see only danger and disintegration? What particular skills give them their advantage?

First, they look to the fundamental principles of society and of its marketplaces to organize their reality. They understand the cause and consequences of competition and thus, for example, recognize that the demand for productivity tools will almost be insatiable in the decades forward.

The Masters understand that the herd impulse has never been stronger and with modern communications never more easily set off. People will run ever faster to stay ahead and merely end up running in circles. As a result, the herd lacks any semblance of strategic outlook and runs past opportunities even as it doubles back and runs past them again. The herd stampedes to the same already muddied waterhole, while a pristine waterfall beckons just meters away. For example, they fail to understand that healthcare products and services continue to be an area of rich opportunity and continuing unmet need.

If you doubt the above statement because you know about new companies and new products in the healthcare field, note we did not say that no one was involved, just that the need justifies more involvement than there is and that this gap between the need and the response is longstanding. Consider how relatively few engineers there are in the field, how relatively few software developers are in the field, compared to those developing iPhone apps, and how relatively few entrepreneurs there are.

Involvement is so minimal because the herd lacks strategic vision and because they have another critically important mistake in their head. They fail to understand, as the Masters do, that we live in a dark and primitive world, where enlightenment advances is so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. Masters see that although the flow of information and the fund of knowledge have never been greater, ever more people are mistaken about ever more things. The information stream is corrupted with every manner of lie, rumour, false assumption, speculation, inaccuracy and distorting omissions. The Masters fully recognize that knowing who is mistaken about what and why is equivalent to having the keys to the kingdom.

The Masters also recognize that most people are beguiled by the existing categories of disciplines and endeavours, thinking of them as real instead of mere conveniences of thought. Opportunity is frequently found by looking between disciplines, or in mixtures thereof, or in complete redefinitions.

So what exactly is the information industry? Is it hardware and software? Or hardware, software and content? If content is included, do we mean all content from tweets to movies to Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Where does new scientific knowledge fit in the taxonomy of information? Should content be free? Can it actually ever be free? Should content be considered separately from its distribution?

Of course not withstanding these questions, there is no doubt where the information industry’s greatest need is, a need that grows more acute with each passing day. Without a doubt, the creation of new information, the right kind of information, is the paramount opportunity of the age of information.

Furthermore, Masters recognize the herd’s mistaken definition of technology. It is usually taken to mean a device of some kind, usually with a computer brain. While devices can be very useful, they are only part of technology properly understood. (Remember that dictionaries define what people mean words to mean, not what words should mean.)

Technology is any form of applied knowledge – our knowledge of how to do and make things, whether physical or not. Devices embody technology, but so do software, recipes, trade secrets and books.

Technology faces three challenges. First, there is a vast fund of knowledge that is not yet being applied. The forgone social and economic benefits are enormous.

Second, there is incorrect information being applied to disastrous effect. Notwithstanding the vast cost of this misapplication, little attention is paid to this phenomenon. In today’s stupid world, the volume of information is more important than its accuracy or completeness.

Third, we need to advance the pace of technology dramatically by generating innovations across the full range of human endeavours. An innovation is by definition new technology. We need innovation from healthcare to the dramatic arts, from energy to corporate governance. The herd in its confusion believes as an article of religious faith that innovative devices are far more important than, for example, innovative teaching techniques.

Not surprisingly, this produces a second piece of mythology, namely that we need to train more people in mathematics and science. But we would be better off if we first made sure that those already trained in mathematics and science were doing useful work in an environment that welcomed and supported it. This we should do before we add to the pool of wasted talent.

What we actually need, as the highest priority, is to train many more people to be innovative problem-solvers in every discipline, without exception.

In addition, Masters also appreciate that finding an opportunity is hard work, and creating the innovation to satisfy it even harder. While innovation represents new solutions, the old virtue of work still stands. And allied to the work ethic is its old companion patience. Without patience, excellence of any kind is impossible. The notorious impatience of Silicon Valley continues to misdirect a legion of talent.

Future postings will discuss the work of Masters in more detail.

Finally, there is the attribute that every Master must have. Without it, significant success will be improbable.  To find a great opportunity and to create an innovation worthy of it requires courage. Courage to face down the tumultuous times. Courage to have confidence in one’s own abilities. Confidence to enter the world of visions, of what might be instead of what is. Courage to turn your back on the bellowing herd.

In 2010, let us wish the apprentice the courage to create a masterpiece.