People: Taavet Hinrikus

This is a nice profile of a person doing something very cool

He was employee No. 1 of Skype, which was built in the former Soviet republic of Estonia. For Hinrikus, whose world was utterly transformed when Estonia was freed, the idea of changing the rest of the world had a huge attraction. “‘Let’s go out and build a global telco.’ Let’s go change the world. That sounds kind of scary to do,” he says.

Feynman Alert!

There is no concealing it. Richard Feynman is one of my heroes. Not just because he was a brilliant scientist who made amazing contributions in his fields. And not just because he became an advocate for raising the standards of scientific inquiry, including his testimony on the Challenger disaster. Those things are very tool. But even more cool, Feynman had an amazing theory of what life is about: it is an intellectual adventure. So whenever I see people writing about Feynman, I take note. And today, Digital Tonto offers a nice tribute.


Remembering Hannah Arendt

Some things about the 20th century are a bit difficult to understand. At, or at least near, the top of the list is the incredible scope of violence that was unleashed in its two great wars and thereafter. And one of the most appalling examples was the mass detention and execution of non-combatants. It was a dramatic challenge to the notion of universal human dignity.

A person steeped in 19th century ideals could at least have understood that violence of some sort, would be “normal”. After all, the 19th century saw its share of violence as well. But 19th century violence by and large was supposed to take place within the confines of rules of engagement. This confinement could be achieved when the “powers that were” had sufficient power to so insist and they exercised that power. There were counter-examples, like the US Civil War, whose violence exploded far beyond what had been expected. But these were seen as aberrations. Oddities. Uncivilized.

The first great war of the 20th century obliterated at least one of those rules of engagement — that fighting would not lead to massive slaughter of combatants. Slaughter had occurred before, but not in recent memory and not for such an extended period and not at this scale. And when this rule was breached, so went at least some of the moral authority of the established order, not to mention the political power of elites.

Some thought that power would become more dispersed for the benefit of the masses.  That democracy would mediate the more violent instincts of mankind. Others had different ideas. They did not want to give up the idea that centralized power is good. Power is order. They just wanted the authority to dictate — beyond contestation — what that good meant. Welcome the fascists, communists and many other —ists who felt little or even no remorse about mass murder in the name of ideology, nationality, ethnicity or any other standard that might be convenient. From a moral perspective, with these new actors, the world was moving into uncharted space.

Then came the second war. This was a war where the idea of being a “non-combatant” or “civilian” lost its meaning. Mass bombing of cities (even fire bombing), internment of civilians, concentration camps, extermination of people en mass all took place. It seemed that anything might happen. And after the war was over, what could one make of the cruelty?

By and large, those that prevailed in the war painted the killers as monsters. Labeled this way, these were not like us good people. And if they were not like us, we are safe from the risk of being corrupted by their like. We could “thank the Lord that the war against fascism has been won!” Or at least, we could publicly and repeatedly declare that we still loathe the monsters. We are monster free!

This was convenient, but is it accurate? Monstrous things happened. But was it because one group alone were monsters? And are we really safe from the lost moral compass that generated such cruelty? Did ending the cruelty of the fascists help us turn a corner about cruelty overall?

Hannah Arendt chose to think  about this. She had suffered from the hands of the nazis so she understood what that meant. She wanted to understand what had happened. She wanted to know who those people were that perpetrated such grand crimes. And so she wrote about Eichman on trial in Jerusalem. Here is the starting point for Arendt’s musing

… her thinking and writing were nourished by the insight that existing intellectual tools had turned out to be powerless vis-à-vis totalitarianism. To give you one striking example: the idea that there must be a reason for or a logic to treating someone as an enemy. This tradition of Western thought had shown itself to be powerless. Her main question became: How do we confront the reality of totalitarianism, when it surpasses our understanding? That is where her thinking started, at the place where the knowledge she had did not help her understanding.

Putting this another way, power — even cruelly enforced power — always had been justified somehow in western tradition. Indeed, the worst wars in European history (like the 20 years war) were those with the strongest justification (religion). As such, western people found it difficult to grasp a situation where the exercise of power did not depend on having an historical justification. Instead, one could lie or or even say nothing at all as one did terrible things to innocent people, as long as the actor shared a slogan with those who wielded the guns at that moment. One was in the club or was an outsider. And this opened the door to mediocrities posing as great historical figures. They could do so with impunity as long as they were in the club.

Hannah Arendt made the obvious point that this meant a total moral collapse. She made the less obvious point that it also meant a moral collapse for the victims who were overwhelmed by the loss of meaning in lives. If this was normal, then anything can be accepted as normal. To Arendt, that acceptance would be more horrific than the crimes themselves.

So how to reject it? Only by the detachment that laughter gives. By refusing to give seriousness to the process or to the people who were behind the process. To point out, for example, what a mediocrity Eichman actually was.  By retreating back into the moral self, rather than accepting mass produced lies.

In the sixties, this type of rejection of societal norms became part of the youth movement. It was proclaimed, for example, that one should not trust anyone over 30. And respectable people, Sir Kenneth Clark among them, worried that the moral center of society was falling apart, once more. But as the years went by, the youth movement did not offer significant major changes to the power structures that they lived within. The post-war moral compass did not really shift.

And we might argue that the world has not moved to embrace Arendt’s way of thinking. We still cling to the idea that the mass killings of the 20th century are by and large a historical relic. And we do not take seriously that moral collapse is a credible risk of a mass produced world — a world run on the basis of slogans rather than moral conviction. And as we race forward, we still demonize those whom we feel are suspect, whether they are poor or not white or of different religious persuasions. Any and all who are not part of our clubs. And the more we demonize, the more we blind ourselves to the possibility that we ourselves are needlessly cruel.

Lincoln called on something that he called “the better angels of our nature” to help get beyond the horror of war. I would argue that Arendt’s ironic view of Eichman et al was a plea to energize those same better angels. And I would go further. We need to think more deeply about empowering those better angels as we race forward into the 21st century. We have seen what can happen when things go the other way. We don’t want to go in that direction again.

User Funding

Yesterday, I posted about the contribution that Al Sloan made to US business culture. Whether you think Al was great or something less than great, he was a trail blazer. He introduced new ideas that “stuck”. And great corporations copied his management ideas.

Al also started a process that we are still getting used to. That process is giving people what they want. As Lafley & Martin bring out in their important book, “Playing to Win” this is much harder to do than it looks.  I never realized how complicated it is just to sell laundry detergent. But modern markets are based on nuanced understanding of what people will pay for – not on what you or I or anyone else think we should buy.

At least part of this is manipulation. “NEW” and “IMPROVED” is at times actually bad for you. Products may actually harm you (like cigarettes). But even if they don’t, you easily cede problem solving thinking to firms by relying on them to do stuff for you. Without realizing it, as you turn over your preference data, you can be squeezed out of the design cycle.

BTW, this was an idea that Angelo Pellegrini wrote about back in 1948. Here is Angelo hard at work in the kitchen

You might check out his book “The Unprejudiced Palate“.

I think about Angelo a lot these days. He championed the simple idea that growing your own food and eating it is fun. He took back the power of shaping his life. Not as a rebel, but as a regular guy who loved to live well. He just thought it was silly that people knew so little about what great stuff they could get from their own gardens.

So why is this important? I am sure that Al Sloan would have dismissed Angelo Pellegrini as a bit of a nutcase. But I think the future belongs to people like Angelo. People who do simple things better and share these ideas will re-shape how huge markets operate.

If you are still scratching your head, keep in mind that our buying preferences are not fixed. What we buy is shaped by our expectations of what we get out of the purchase. So it is said that we buy “experiences”. Errr …. Like the experience I get when I use my amazing Leica binoculars.

Do I need these? No. Do I love the experience when I use them? Absolutely.Would I buy other gadgets that have little practical value but offer similar great experiences? Probably, if I could afford them.

So how are our expectations shaped? By stories that we connect with – stories that appear possible and desirable. And here is the kicker – as we share information about what is possible and what is desirable, we develop expectations that are less dependent on marketing directed to us. We start valuing stuff like growing our own food, the way that Angelo did. And instead of loving my not so useful binoculars, I might start loving my “slugs away” electric fence.

You might ask “what is new about this?” After all, Angelo passed on back in 1991. Don’t we already do this? Here is what is new —  radically lowered costs of generating and sharing information via internet (costs that will fall further). Information is power, when it is put in usable form. In the old days, firms enjoyed the power of researching consumer preferences and got fantastically rich by transforming that data into stuff that was good enough. But when buyers get involved in more stories, our expectations and hence our preferences change. Power will move to those who are in tune with this new sort of process.

You might read this article about bitcoin from this perspective. Not so much to get into bitcoin, but to start thinking about appcoin.

Remembering Al Sloan

There was a time when I knew nothing about Al Sloan. Here is the great man

But I started getting interested in how institutions work (and don’t work) and I bumped into Peter Drucker’s books. It was Drucker who relayed Sloan’s story to me. Drucker had made his name writing a book about Sloan’s General Motors and was a big fan. Here he is talking about Sloan

Drucker was a fan, but he also saw the drawbacks to Sloan’s management style. As Elizabeth Edersheim brings out, Sloan saw management as a “science”. To Sloan, once you got the formula right, you had the answer and stuck with it. Drucker understood that management is a “practice”. The more managers set things in stone, the less they could react to market changes.

I was even less positive about Sloan. As a child of the 1960’s, Sloan seemed to me to be the ultimate company man. Conservative and perhaps even a bit phony. His General Motors was all about marketing, not producing quality products. Stuff like this

One might argue that the combination of the above led to GM’s demise when the market for cars shifted in the 1970’s. Sloan could be criticized on other grounds too.

But there was something about Sloan that is compelling. Sloan was a great team builder. Indeed, the secret of GM’s success was its brilliant corps of top managers. And as Walter Friedman brings out from HBR, Sloan had one other thing going for him. He created products that people wanted. Not what he thought that they should have, but what they were ready to pay for.

It was a huge shift from Henry Ford’s earlier vision of how the car industry would serve people. Ford dedicated himself to building a car that everyone could afford. Ford’s cars were utilitarian (any color you want, as long as it is black) not fancy. Something like this

At Sloan’s GM, cars were made for each market segment and you could get any color that you wanted. Sloan’s GM introduced the idea that cars were part of your life style.

Was this better or was it just snake oil? Looking back, I think it was better and snake oil. Snake oil because the emphasis on marketing over engineering led to inferior products. Better because including the purchaser in design thinking was an acknowledgement that the purchase might know what he or she wants (rather than just be thankful that anything was on offer). You can look at the trends this way. Ford made cars affordable. Sloan made them desirable. Both were great gifts.

Is there a next step here? I think there is. Now that consumers are “in the driver’s seat”, they will start figuring out how to drive the car. In other words, consumer preferences will move from just aggregated buying decisions to product development decisions. We are just starting to see this as crowd funding empowers people to have fun, funding what they want.

Isn’t this more work? It would be if in the future we are still stuck with the design tools that are on offer today. But why should we accept that? As consumers want more design input, I expect that design itself will change. It will become more modular, for example, so that the purchaser has input on platform and add on module development. Interesting.

The Second Earl of Essex – Stupid or What?

The Second Earl or Essex was a guy named Robert Devereux. He became a court favorite of Queen Elizabeth I — 33 years older than he was —- who apparently had a thing for dashing, handsome young guys. Here is Devereux

And here he is again, looking very much the elegant courtier

File:Nicholas Hilliard 013.jpg

So far so good. Elizabeth gave Devereux a monopoly on importing sweet wines into Britain, which became his main source of wealth. Nice to have friends in high places, right?

Hmmm … so you might think that Devereux would take care to make this work, right? Wrong. Devereux offended the queen and lost his monopoly and income source. Then things got worse. He plotted to overthrow the queen, failed miserably, and was beheaded — at age 34.

Sort of makes one wonder.

And while we are at it, what to make of Elizabeth? Did Kate Blanchett capture her personality in the 1988 film, Elizabeth? Carole Levin thinks not. Forget for a moment the numerous historical inaccuracies in the film. The main point is that the real Elizabeth was a much stronger and far more interesting person than what you see in the film.