Innovation, networks, the seventh sense, and (poor) storytelling

The summer is an interesting time to read the books you don’t usually get to during the year. So it was that I packed The Seventh Sense by Joshua Cooper Ramo with me in my suitcase as it blipped on my radar a few times in a couple of months (my serendipitous selection criterion). This book — while not a masterpiece — will probably be one of the most talked about among CEOs, politicians, technologists, entrepreneurs, VCs, investors, policy makers and thinkers over the next year.

While there are many critiques one can make of the book, Ramo manages to interweave three levels of introspection — past, present and future — around the notion of networks, the innovation going on in and around networks, and the necessary innovation (especially at the government level) that networks require.

Connection changes everything!

What is fascinating is the basic tenet Ramo lays out: any object (living or material) derives its importance from the number and nature of connections it has. That is, connectivity is the be all and end all, meaning networks are the key to understanding today’s and tomorrow’s world. “To the master of networks lies all power and riches.” For example, a thermostat is not very sexy, until it is attached to the network. Then it changes the way people think about thermostats and results in Nest (the manufacturer of the connected thermostat) being acquired by Google for $3.2B… The ongoing race to connect things (bodies, appliances, databases, professionals, friends) demonstrates that this is not quite a scoop, but it is interesting to think that the act of connecting something changes the nature of that something.

Fast, Open or Secure!

A second fascinating tenet, and probably the chief insight of the book, is that all networks crave gates as much as they do connections. Basically, each network has three factors it tries to manage: speed, security and openness. However there is a trilemma here as a network can usually only offer 2 out of the 3 dimensions. Fast and open does not do well on the secure dimension. Fast and secure does not do well on the open dimension. Gating networks can help to resolve this trilemma by creating more secure fast networks which are “open” behind the gate… While the notion of gates sound negative, there is probably a wealth of innovative potential in creating gates.

Within this context we can better understand Facebook@work . Facebook is now offering companies the possibility to create gated corporate networks — i.e. a connected workplace — in which companies can manage all of their communication in a fast, secure and “open” manner. Open in this case means open among employees of the company. Using this gated community approach, companies, or so the idea goes, can replace e-mail as their primary means of communication and can manage all their projects via Facebook. An MBA study trips I led took us to 1 Hacker Way to hear about Facebook@Work directly from the team — definitely worth the visit.

Darn politicians — why can’t they get a clue?!

Interesting too was the brief but effective explanation as to why there is such a growing frustration around the world with the slow and indecisive reaction of leaders, elected officials, regulators and politicians. In a nutshell, his argument, and I hope I am staying true to his intention, is that networks now allow information and events to be shared almost instantly, compressing time and space so that we experience events around the world in real-time and next door. Compared to the “hyper-speed” of events and information, politicians and regulators seem to be moving at a snail pace.

Artificial intelligence is freaking me out!

Ramo ends his book with an overview of artificial intelligence (AI) and the risks that the machines will take over the world. While he tries to put a positive spin on the whole thing, it seems like he sees this as the biggest risk that we face and one that the regulators and leaders must get right. In terms of innovation this will be one of the most prolific areas in the years to come, BUT, and this is a big but, Ramo warns us that we need to be very careful as citizens and as “the gated” of the worlds’ networks not to let the algorithms run the show. He urges policy makers and the rest of us to get literate in technology. And implicitly invites educators to do their role in this essential task. That said, while AI will bring us lots of wonderful innovations, mostly life-enhancing and life-saving, the risk that this might put humanity at risk is real (as Gates, Hawkins and Musk continue to warn us).

Storytelling is not telling stories :’(

As any student of innovation knows, storytelling is a key to selling an argument. And while the book includes many stories, there is no one overarching story that makes the whole book feel complete. There are many arguments that don’t build up very well to a conclusion, some repetition and a feeling at the end that the loop was not looped. In other words, poor storytelling. Ramo seems to confuse the telling of interesting anecdotes and stories with storytelling. Where you expect the book to build up to a grande finale and final wisdom that ties the whole book together, the book ends without any important insight or takeaway. Instead of weaving the importance of artificial intelligence into the narrative, Ramo finishes with AI and robotics but without really linking his arguments explicitly to networks (and he left the reader to do so).

What’s in it for you?

There is something in this book for everyone as there are many levels to the analysis, takeaways and recommendations. If you are a policy-maker, decision-maker, or just someone trying to figure out what makes the world tick, the book is worth the time, effort and price. If you are an entrepreneur or innovator, the implications of networks — good and bad — are important to understand. Networks are “weapons of mass disruption” and taking the big picture on this is not a bad idea. There are other more tech-oriented discussions, but the overriding question Ramo asks — “what is the nature of our age?” — is one worth thinking about.

Did you read it? What did you think of it?

(also published on www.alonrozen.com my blog on innovation)

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