Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Next 20 Years

I'm a little depressed. It’s hard for me not to be emotionally swayed by two disparate visions about the future. The first describes a time in, say, 20 years, where computers have become so complex they are effectively conscious. 
The growth of tech power is logarithmic and we are profoundly under prepared for what log changes feel like. When I put on this hat I think: Schools are not preparing our kids for the future. This is a future of electric vehicles, of quantum computing, personalized medicine, surveillance and drones…
Then there is this other conversation. The dystopic one. The planet is changing quickly. Global warming. Water and food scarcity. Impending droughts. Civil breakdown. 
In the next 20 years it’s posited that civilization as we know it will collapse. Or perhaps just western civilization. (Whew.) When I put on this hat I also think: schools are not preparing our kids for the future. This is a future of survivalism and minimalism, distributed power and control, and other depressing shit.

So what is proper preparation? Do we make our kids learn to program computers and macroeconomics? or do we teach them guns, farming and how to build mechanical engines?

Are the issues of the day things like income disparity, grade school bullying, human enslavement, non-GMO organic foods? Or is it tool late to worry about such trivialities of civilization and instead we should we cash out of our 401Ks and buy gold bullion and water and underground facilities in Montana?

Twenty years isn’t very long. My kids will be pretty grown – it will be largely their problem to address, but I’ll still have my home loan to pay off and retirement to negotiate. And whatever will happen it’s going to happen during the next twenty years, not all of a sudden in 20 years. 

So here's what i've come to: the two futures aren’t mutually exclusive. The first “future” is about tools; the second “future” is about what we need to apply these tools to. People have been predicting the end of the world for quite some time. They’re usually wrong (but occasionally right). Perhaps the only really wrong attitude is one that says “it can’t happen here. It won’t happen to me. Everything is status quo.” I’ve also found that any time I stress about some future outcome, it’s usually neither as good nor as bad as I can imagine. The reality is always more in the middle.

Even though this is the most peaceful and safe time in human history, yes, things are also bad. The environment is changing quickly. And luckily technology is changing just as quickly – maybe moreso. What i want for my kids:  to have the wisdom to remain calm with an uncertain future, the nimbleness and persistence to try and fail and try again, and the creativity to think of things we cannot even imagine as they address these gargantuan global and societal issues. The tech will be there to support them.

Kids: go do your homework.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Photographs Available:

Monterey, 2009
I’ve been continuously shooting photographs since the late 1970s, and if you know me, you’re likely in my photographs. For the holidays this year I’ve decided to try something, not quite a business; I think of it as a service.

SF, 2013
I’m around images all the time, and I talk about photography and its future as part of my job. And I’ve recently become aware of something that maybe everyone knows, but I didn’t: there’s a substantive difference between a photographic image, and a photograph. The image, owned by the artist, is the lingua franca of the web. As artists and business struggle to maintain ownership and control of an image and how it is used and where it is seen… it was easy for me to forget about photographs. The holdable, touchable, physical object. To see it set apart, to allow it to age—either slowly or quickly—but that it’s somewhat alive. Each physical print has a history. Each is imbued with meaning outside the iconic image it displays. It has scale in a way the digital representation does not. It has scarcity. It is special. I like images, but I love photographs.

Skywalker Ranch, 1987
So I decided to print a few of my images and make them available to people who might want them. It may be you in the photo. It may be a place you’ve been or time we shared, or it might just be something beautiful. For whatever reason, for a very short time, I’m going to make any of these images available to purchase.

I’m going to make three and exactly three prints of anything I print, and I will never print any more. I think of them this way: one for you, one for me, and one more, just in case. The size will be determined by the photo itself. Some will be small—around 5x7, others will be around 8x10. The image determines this. All are mounted identically to 16x20. Regardless of size, the pricing is as follows:
>The first print, the one for you, is $100. I want it to be affordable and accessible. That’s about my cost to get it printed archivally, on cool paper, and get it mounted simply but professionally. It would be suitable for framing, or just a nice way to have it around. It’s signed and personal. Happy holidays! 
> The second print, the extra one, is $1,000. 
>The third print, my print, really isn’t for sale. I love having them printed and if you like it enough to buy it, then I want it up as well.
And that’s it. There are only three. Once these are gone, you're out of luck. If you want one badly enough, i can introduce you to the owners of the prints. Personally, to get mine, it's gonna be expensive. So don’t let it come to that. Get the first one. I won’t print any more. I take this seriously.

So browse through my portfolios, and contact me privately if you’ve seen something you’d like or if you have any questions.

A current-ish portfolio site:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Hero’s Journey & Product Development

I just read this discussion of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey--and it led me to the following hypothesis:

The difference between products created at big companies and startups is in the soul of the product itself – that there is a marked difference between a product that has come to life from a person with a job to create a product, with a goal to have something by next September, invented to fulfill a need that has been carefully researched– and a product invented through the often irrational passion and reckless abandon of an individual who must make this thing because it demands to be invented. Rilke described writing poetry as something that was done because it couldn’t not be done – to create from within, from internal grumblings, late nights staring into the dark, irrational desires and glimpses of things not there; if not irrespective of external forces at least not driven by them. If we want to create great things we need to recognize the disadvantage we begin with when the products come from too much rationality, too much “job” and not enough “dream.”

Making a product is a hero’s journey, of following a calling, of not being ready, of confronting obstacles and demons to accomplish a goal. The more it is a daily routine, a scheduled evolution, an obligation to complete, the more difficult it will be to succeed. And if the product development is anything LESS than a hero’s journey, I suggest it is unlikely to succeed.


Monday, August 05, 2013

Disruptions and "Confirmation Bias"

by Heath Hinegardner
Confirmation bias is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs.  Organizations display this bias when they gather information selectively or when they interpret it in a biased way.

When large industry leaders explore new product development and assess their capacity to be disrupted by smaller companies, they will tend to find evidence that supports their sense that they are inviolate leaders largely unaffected by the pesky behaviors of start-ups. Conversely, startups have an equal and opposite bias – irrationally suggesting they have an opportunity to disrupt an industry leader, that the leader is “on its way down” and supporting ongoing investment in their effort.

When businesses are disrupted, it is often cited that they missed the writing on the wall because they were getting data from their existing customer base. I’m suggesting that even if the right audience was sampled, the problem is exacerbated by confirmation bias.

Both the disruptor and the disrupted suffer from the same sort of bias, but with different results. For the startup, the bias drives their hopeful innovation and fund raising efforts. It propels their momentum and, I suggest, it improves the chances for success. For the industry leader, on the other hand, it leads to complacency for acting defensively; it supports the status quo in terms of product development, innovation, and viability of established processes and benchmarks.

Every time I hear of an industry leader point to data that supports their belief that their users love them, that down turns or flattening of some trends are okay, or that competitors are woefully inconsequential, a little voice tells me to be cautious, or better--contrarian. I think that market leaders should instead expect to be disrupted and look for any signs, however early, that the game is afoot. Those who have drunk (and perhaps mixed up) the Kool-Aid might hypothesize the end is closer than it might actually be, simply to be appropriately wary and a little more defensive. I think it was Andy Grove who once famously quipped “only the paranoid survive."

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Pushing through the Obvious

When I take a photograph or have an idea... it generally starts rather cliched. It's a little obvious. My first photos of Paris or Mt. Rushmore or North Beach are practically postcards. Pretty. Pretty unimaginative. Seems true with other things -- product ideas, music. And not just things i create, but things i am attracted to and enjoy.

(Andre Kertsz, 1929)
But where it gets good is when i tire of the obvious. How many photos of Coit Tower can you have? Is it possible to capture something about Mt. Rushmore that isn't THE CLASSIC image of that thing? I think that one key element of creativity is getting that cliche-phase out of your system. You have to get bored with where you began, where everyone begins, and move past, After weeks or I suppose years, the products created are nuanced and rich. The work is to get to that place relatively quickly. Some people can reject the obvious with no effort. But in many cases it's more like getting it out of your system. And not resting, not being "done" when that first image or idea rolls out. In every case, the discipline i feel is about allowing myself (or forcing myself) to exhaust all the cliches, laboriously... until i simply cannot stomach another one. Out of that boredom and frustration the first really good products emerge. I love it when that happens.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Developing Your Corporate Lizard Brain

Part 1
John and I were discussing login methods and he pointed out how there is often a lag of 2 seconds after entering your password before a website lets you in. “This reduces spamming,” he explained, although I didn’t get it at first. Most password hacking attempts are automated systems, running through bajillions of guesses to gain access. While a user might not notice a 2 second delay, an automated system that can make many hundreds of attempts per second is going to be seriously impeded by the timeshift –one attempt every 2 seconds instead of 1000 attempts every two seconds – that’s orders of magnitude of change, even with only a tiny noticeable shift for the user.

Part 2
Reed Hastings famously published the Netflix Culture Deck, which was designed to help Netflix stay nimble like a startup and maintain the kind of business environment it deemed necessary for success. In it he shows the slide below, which depicts how complexity grows as size grows and it drives out the high performers. Now I’m at a larger organization where I’m charged with being nimble and start-upish, exploring all forms of innovation inside the company, and thinking deeply about these cautions.  

In a start-up there are literally thousands of decisions and tasks to get done. Signing up for accounts. Coming up with names and logos. Hiring decisions. Product positioning. Many are simple red tape (filling out forms for an iTunes account) and some are mission critical (engineering specifications), but in all cases each decision is made and executed by just a few people who are in very close proximity and communication. The distances between the ISSUE, the decision MAKER and the decision EXECUTOR is tiny.

But with growth there are specialized teams for every task, and consequently every new decision moves to the experts. Regardless of whether you’re asking permission or simply giving notice, the decision has a longer path from stimulus to response. Like adding two seconds to a login, it’s reasonable that any single call is no big deal – but in aggregate the internal resistance changes the work from nimble to labored, and I suggest hampers the ability of the organism to compete in the marketplace and survive when the environment it was tuned for happens to be changing.

When you’re a one-celled animal, everything you need is right there, for better or worse. As you grow into a multicellular organism there is radical differentiation. The head and brain are way up there and the fingers are way over there…

But multicellular organisms can survive, obviously, they just maintain pathways to shortcut the infrastructure. Clearly company experts are there to keep the organization safe. In fact, much about that evolution was about improving the businesses ability to stay safe and efficient. But the cost is that the organization is no longer maximized to stay competitive.

In the human body there are a number of system shortcuts that keep us safe, but perhaps the best metaphor is the spinal reflex arc: a pin prick in your finger sends a signal to your spine which contracts the muscles in your arm to move your hand quickly. That signal did not have to go to your brain to get processed. (John also reminds me that large dinosaurs are reported to have developed a "hind brain" as unmyelinated nerves were too slow to adequately control such a large body...) For large organizations I believe that the best way to stay nimble to make sure there are systems in place that allow considerable self-governance, reflex arcs, hind brains, in key parts of the body. 

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Death of the DVD

I'm so disappointed. I really liked DVDs. Mostly I liked the insanely consistent inventory of everything i could possibly ever want to watch from the entire history of media; if the content existed, then it existed on DVD. When I left Netflix in 2008 they had almost 200,000 titles. The library of feature films on streaming is far smaller and even if you disregard that it is spread across a range of providers, it will likely be a spotty selection for a long time.  

Up until a month ago I had a DVD player as an intrinsic part of my computer, so i maintained both Netflix disk and streaming accounts. But my new laptop has no drive, and while I purchased an external drive, the writing was on the wall. Tablets, phones, laptops... the old DVD player can find no safe harbor. Game consoles will be that last beachhead. But it's a rapid death from here, and our devices will be nimbler and less expensive for it.

I’m not sad about the loss of DVDs per se, but for the remarkable access to content they provided--a magical combination of a standard format plus the right to re-rent and resell; The passing of DVD represents the end of an important era. 

With streaming the content goes back to the walled-world from which we had lived outside. The DVD era will have been a fluke in the space-time continuum where normally creators had all the control over consumers. For 30 years though—first with videotape and then DVD--we could easily share movies and videos. There was an entire human ecosystem of content outside the studio’s reach. Once you purchased that object it was yours to watch, share, rent, sell again. Netflix built an empire on the back of that old ruling. With the death of the DVD the era of owning and real-world peer-to-peer sharing is grandfathered out. Content will never again be so “ownable”. We have entered a Faustian bargain where the convenience of streaming was swapped for a world where we cannot own this type of content --we lease the music, movies and programming we have. Releasing on disc was often a no-brainer; now there are rights agreements to be worked out for every single frame.

So enjoy these last days while you can, while you have access to DVD players still. Because it may not be for a generation before so much historical content is so easily and consistently accessible. Not that there won't be petabytes of new content to keep us satisfied and busy, but something was lost in the trade. And I for one will miss it.