Productivity and Technology.
You are a 20 yr old living in the early 1990s a2000snd are attracted to technology, you hear there is this new thing called the internet that allows people to send and receive information through computers, what new thing will you do with this technology, how will you profit from this ?
2000s obvious answer now is to sell books… then sell everything online, then rent your infrastructure, congratulations, you just killed traditional retail and are on route to become the biggest company in the world.
You are a 30 yr old living in the early 2000s and are still attracted to technology, you missed the first big wave of internet startups, but think there is still room for growth, you know how to code in html, php and can setup an Apache server, what do you do ?
The obvious answer now is to make a social network that allows you to share pictures with your friends & family and market it to college students, you might end up killing democracy later ( oops ), you make addicts out of billions of people by exploiting their human instincts , you harvest and sell their private information, you not only not end up in jail, but your company is in the top 10 worldwide and you are a billionaire, nice ?
You are in your 40’s and it’s 2007 , you still love technology and are a senior developer that can code in multiple languages and are a team lead, you are really tired of missing the technological boat, what do you do ?
The obvious answer now is that you buy Bitcoin and make a programmable version of it, you might have just killed the financial system ( oops ), but might become the richest man/or woman on earth in a few decades…
If none of these seems obvious or attainable you are in good company and just so we are clear if you manage to pay rent on time and are nice to people and animals, I think you are contributing more to society than many “successful technology companies” .
Being a slow learner but also curious and inquisitive, I’ve been asking myself how the big changes in technology come about and if it is possible to contribute and gain from them, in other words, what can predict the next big thing and how can you or I make such thing or at least contribute to it, invariably I end up thinking about productivity which is what I want to talk about, but let’s first look at other contributing factors ordered from least important to most important.
The chosen ones
For years I’ve studied those that have succeeded in tech and their companies, listened to their talks, read their books and even met a few ( mostly b-listers but still worth millions ), I lived in both North and South California, long considered the meccas of tech innovation (well at least the past 50 yrs )and have earned my bread by helping startups with their products doing a mix of design, product and software development, I don’t believe there’s evidence* that founders are special in any way, at least initially, later they can benefit from economies of scale and brand recognition to access things that you and I can’t.chosen
The myth of the startup founder as a genius visionary has ironically a lot to do with productivity, we humans love a good myth, and the media has noticed this, so it follows we get an endless stream of articles: “ Top 10 things tech visionaries under 15 do before 6am”. This is productive because we usually don’t have the mental space to deal with uncertain outcomes and the complex narrative of each tech innovation, in fact we hate these things because in evolutionary terms, those that embraced uncertainty were eaten by lions and those that couldn’t generalize starved, so we are always looking for a pattern, let me rephrase the article to a more realistic title:
“If you do these 10 things before 6am every day you might or might not become a tech visionary, there is also an unknown number of factors besides your age that will affect your outcome.”
So what really explains the chosen few ? Most likely
Unfortunately luck does not mean that you just seat there and the next big technological change materializes, or that a company just spontaneously forms around you, I don’t want to discredit founders, just knock them down a few pegs so we can clearly see other drivers of change, and yes, they are a big part of it, but so do all those that tried before or in parallel and failed along with all those early employees earning 0.0001% equity and all the supporting cast in capitalism.
Further reading:* Getting There: A Book of Mentors provides an overview of quite a few founders and a lot of different advice and origin stories that can't easily be condensed.
The chosen place
A secondary narrative that has been used to explained success is that there are a few places with just the right conditions to generate technological progress; right now that place is Silicon Valley in California, but it has shifted along with global economics through the ages, here the evidence seems overwhelming , 90% of successful startups come from SV, 90% of VC money is situated within a few mile radius in SV and hight tech labor is plentiful, there’s sunshine everywhere and I am just making these things up because that’s what you want to hear…another myth.
In reality while a lot of startups do come from SV, a higher number ( based on current startup numbers from angel list ) come from New York, what’s more, things are changing fast, remote teams, distributed learning and new VC models (mainly crypto ICO’s and crowdfunding ) are fast denting the SV shine or at least showing there are and will be other ways to fund and organize a technological venture elsewhere, add to that the current anti immigrant politics in the US and the high cost of living and labour in the area and things are not looking so sunshiny there.
Once more I don’t want to downplay the importance of place and conditions but list them as contributing factors for technological innovation.
Further readingA thorough discussion of what conditions and what role they play can be found in Where Good Ideas Come From
The right time.
The relationship between timing and innovation is easy to spot, both success and failure, yet difficult to properly diagnose, the atomic bomb is probably the product that better exemplifies this and a lot of people are taught (or remember) that Germany was competing with the US to produce the atom bomb, and that the US beat them to it and ended the war. Reality once more is less clear, the German effort was not that advanced and by many accounts the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki merely accelerated their surrender . As mentioned timing is a difficult thing to get right because we rarely get an A/B test where we can draw conclusions.
Another way of looking at timing is failure, nobody can argue that media tablets, social networks and Ai are technological innovations, yet each one of these was introduced years before this recognition and failed to achieve commercial success or wide acceptance, like one of my favorite quotes says:
"Being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong."
- Howard Marks ( Oaktree capital )
So yes, timing can be a defining factor due to its relationship to the status quo, yet I believe some inventions are so transformative that they end up changing the status quo.
Further Reading:The baroqueness of the current startup ecosystem/process has been codified in book form:The Art of the Start 2.0: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything
“Special people in special places doing special things at a special time is mostly a convenient myth, but a person or team in the right place working on a problem that the status quo or market can quickly adopt probably has as good or a slightly better chance of developing the next big thing, the right innovation can also bypass all of these factors.
⬅︎ Hey if you like the article you can 👏 and I get a little 🧀
So what is Productivity anyway ?
As biological & temporal beings we humans are ruled by our necessities ( food, water, shelter) and our biological program which after covering survival is simply to reproduce, at the same time we live in a finite world both in terms of resources and time, it is also quite competitive for most of us because that is the system we arrived at. Productivity in its simplest form tries to measure the effort required to cover our necessities and productive change tries to decrease this effort.
⚠️ In a bigger sense, Productivity is a lens, that means it’s just another way of looking at things to discover, highlight and understand them; while a pretty good lens, there are others (systems, moral, economic, universal, etc, etc)Going trough life looking at things through just one lens is limiting both at the individual and societal level and can lead to all kinds of problems.
Productivity by any other name:
Productivity has traditionally been measured in terms of work or labour, that is how much do you have to work for X amount of food or how much work can you extract from Y process. With the advent of money as an aggregator we’ve settled on measures like GDP and GDP per capita, these are all insightful measures but I think they miss the mark if taken in isolation, especially if we are after spotting the Productivity — Technology relationship, let me elaborate…
Economists have traditionally explained human decisions based on the premise that humans do things in a rational way ( Homo Economicus ), yet deciding what is rational or not has yet to be settled and has been an evolving subject, lately, we have shifted from a purely transactional and unitary view to one closer to evolutionary and biological justifications, how we feel about things, societal and cultural norms and how preferences change are all increasingly part of rationality, think about how would you measure productivity if I told you that humans operate in the following way:
We make decisions based on instinct, memory and feelings, later we justify them with reason.
This distinction is important because a social network and technology as fashion are not at first sight productive things, that is until you consider that once we have covered our basic needs, there are also social needs that can benefit from productivity. The social network is productive because it targets our need to belong to a social circle, technology as fashion is productive because it combines tools with jewelry.
Scott Galloway does a great job in dissecting what needs the current Big Tech companies fill, worth a watch or two:How Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google manipulate our emotions.
Productivity ≠ Positive Change.
Another thing that is not immediately apparent is the positive impact of a new technology… we usually take for granted that anything that increases our productivity is a de facto net positive, this is probably not the case :
A system* can easily become single minded and efficient in its objective, but what if that objective is the wrong one ? Somewhere in a farm right now chickens are being slaughtered by the millions in the most efficient way possible, productivity is being measured out of warehouse workers down to the second and governments of all stripes are committing all kinds of human rights violations and injustices while trying to be more productive in their chosen metric.
Perhaps more pernicious is the current rash of what I like to call fake productivity innovations…
Take the case of the social network, this devilish new thing can hijack our emotional system and fool us into thinking we are having real social relationships, a video game can do the same for your drive to accomplish anything and pornography can zap your drive and chances of having a real relationship.
If you notice all these things are related to our needs, but yet they don’t deliver the actual goods, that’s why I think they are fakes…
Before you think I am a no fun antisocial prude luddite, the key thing to notice here is that as long as you know what you are doing and use these innovations rather than let them use you, you might be fine, they are complements, multipliers and diversions, not ends, at least not in their current form.
Further Reading:* If you want to learn more about systems, why and when they go bad I'd recommend:Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Hunting for productive change.
Like gold prospectors we can either dig randomly and hope we strike gold ( get extra lucky ) or we can look in certain places that are known to produce gold ( like dried up riverbeds ), here are 3 easy ones but there could be more…
We are born into and surrounded by legacy systems; a short stroll trough history will quickly show you that most of these systems where made for a specific purpose under particular conditions (the old status quo), this conditions might no longer apply !…A tell tale sign an old legacy system is ripe for change is how baroque it is, how restrictive it has become and odiously how it tends to have extremes. Unfortunately most legacy systems have self perpetuating and defensive mechanisms, so most of your time will be spent figuring out how to circumvent those.
True Productivity gains.
Unsurprisingly, innovations that target our basic needs and how to deliver more bang for the proverbial buck are the most sought after and where a lot us start looking, thing is we’ve been looking in the same places for a few thousand years, so here specialization has become the norm, a phd ( or group of phds) might squeeze out the last ounce of productivity, yet I believe specialization limits the breadth of innovation, looking across disciplines here is a good strategy, especially if you don’t have a phd.
Target unmet/undiscovered needs.
Talking about something that has not been discovered is hard, because well it doesn’t yet exist, here this difficulty is doubled because not only do you need to create something new but this new thing should also serve a new or undiscovered need, this is the hardest part, but it is not without some mercy, this method of hunting is mostly free and accessible to all, all you need is a working mind, some time to think and to gradually develop a new way to see things that are not there, you will also struggle presenting your ideas, so you might want to dress conservatively.
The Tech connection
First I think we need to recognize that the bar has become lower and higher at the same time, by this I mean that on one end it is a great time to do anything tech related, tools and knowledge are mostly accessible and free if you have the time to learn ,new efficiencies like remote teams, crowdfunding/alternative funding and the marketing powers of social media also help in bootstrapping your ventures, I guess you could also say the same thing about any other period in history, we work with what we have.
Paradoxically the flip side of this is that everyone has access to these tools, so it is hard to raise above the noise when everyone has a megaphone , when everyone has access to the same tools amazing as they might be, we end up coming up with the same solutions, it’s a competitive affair and that’s why for my money it is better to look for the low hanging fruit on a tree that no one is looking for.
Technology can also be a tool that makes tools, think about the lathe for instance, while not as obvious as fire, the printing press, or the internet, it was a groundbreaking and transformative machine that could make itself, while few people actually use a lathe to make another lathe, the general idea is that you can make other tools ( a machine tool ).
And so, technology is both a tool to find and make new things along with a quality of these new tools that allows for further inventions, and you guessed it, productivity might be the missing piece that ties it all together, especially productivity that generates positive change.
Be careful out there.
This has been a loose guide to finding the next technological marvel just as much as one on productivity, we’ve glossed over terms, pitfalls, false starts, elements and even some trails you can start exploring, but I also need to warn you about the whole pursuit because it can be a tortured life and activity…
Not only will you have to actually do the work of finding the next new thing and building it, but you might struggle with systems and people that would rather you not change things at all, you will most likely also need to provide for your needs while doing a lot of unpaid thinking and experimenting, help from others, especially those you look up to or think might be inclined to help might never materialize, you might also be criticized, ridiculed and your work and ideas stolen.
To this end I offer you two pieces of advice, the first one is to play to your strengths and do the things that you like and how you like as much as possible, there are probably millions of new things waiting to be discovered and invented out there, so I think you stand a better chance if you look for one or two that interest you and only you, if you are lacking on interesting things, well just try a bunch of new things, something will catch your eye sooner or later.
The second one is to try and not poison yourself, by this I mean do not let what others think or do to you and your ideas get to you, there is more failure than success in this, success is not guaranteed ( unless you enjoy the process ) , and yet others might kick you while you are down or berate and tease you while you struggle and work, all this adversity does not need help from you, turn away from them and focus on your work and what makes you happy.
And you think the next big thing is ?
Least we end up in a sour note, you might be asking yourself what does the author think is the next technological marvel that will increase productivity, will be a positive change for humanity and is somehow attainable ?
I see a lot of things in the works/horizon already, meat substitutes and the reinvention of the workplace are two that currently stand out, so does monetary change in the form of cryptocurrencies.
Me personally ? I’ve put most of my chips on a tree no one is looking but that is close to one being currently harvested..Ai, or specifically CAi ( Conscious Artificial Intelligence)
I go in depth on a first book and article, but basically I think the gradual sophistication of AIs via the emulation of cognitive systems can ultimately be our saving grace and a ticket to hundreds of years of new innovations, alas, I believe I am working on the basics though, but…
As a brain geek it is fun to research, as a software developer I can make my own prototypes and as a freelancing writer/developer/quant/designer I can work half the year and fund my own research the other half. I’ve also accounted for the possibility of personal misfortune or that I simply can’t deliver the end product by setting the project up as a multigenerational one others can pick up after I am gone, but of course I hope I can see it in my lifetime…
Thanks for reading, I hope you can make something wonderful.
I wanted to add specific examples throughout, but it ended up being too long a read, I do want to mention one anecdote I heard a while ago and still find fascinating: it is said that the full productivity gains of electricity vs steam were not immediately apparent until it was realized that electricity allowed for the remote distribution of power at a fraction of what steam and shafts did and that machinery could be moved and positioned in a more efficient way, imagine having just one outlet at home, this is obvious to us now, but again it wasn't for a good number of years back then…
About the Author: Born Eugenio Noyola Leon (Keno) I am a Designer, Software Developer & Artist currently living in Mexico City, you can find me at www.k3no.com