Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future by Joi Ito & Jeff Howe
February 14, 2017
I wanted to stop this book, but I didn't.
Why did I want to stop reading it? The authors unrestrained cheerleading for anything MIT related, and particularly anything MIT Media Lab related was rather waring. In my opinion, the lack of non MIT examples undermined the impact of the principles highlighted in the book (and I do think the principles are great). If you think your club is the only club that does cool things...even if they do some pretty cool things...I'm going to get tired of listening to you. And reading the description of this book, I wasn't expecting it to be SO MIT focused (even with both authors hailing from MIT).
So why didn't I stop reading this book? The authors peppered in enough interesting content, that I found compelling enough to keep taking the bait and reading more pages.
Below is a summary of my highlights from the book. As you'll note, I didn't include the gazillion MIT rah-rah examples.
The world is more complex and volatile today than at any other time in our history. The tools of our modern existence are getting faster, cheaper, and smaller at an exponential rate, just as billions of strangers around the world are suddenly just one click or tweet or post away from each other. When these two revolutions joined, an explosive force was unleashed that is transforming every aspect of society, from business to culture and from the public sphere to our most private moments.
Such periods of dramatic change have always produced winners and losers. The future will run on an entirely new operating system. It's a major upgrade, but it comes with a steep learning curve. The logic of a faster future oversets the received wisdom of the past, and the people who succeed will be the ones who learn to think differently.
In WHIPLASH, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe distill that logic into nine organizing principles for navigating and surviving this tumultuous period. From strategically embracing risks rather than mitigating them (or preferring "risk over safety") to drawing inspiration and innovative ideas from your existing networks (or supporting "pull over push"), this dynamic blueprint can help you rethink your approach to all facets of your organization.
What technology actually does, the real impact it will eventually have on society, is often that which we least expect. Humans are perpetually failing to grasp the significance of their own creations. We are all susceptible to misinterpreting the technological tea leaves, that we are all blinkered by prevailing systems of thought.
But the real fact is that we don’t have any idea how humans will use the second, third, or tenth generation of the technology. The advances—the ideas—will come from the least likely places. Inthe end, technologies are just tools—useless, static objects until they are animated by human ideas.
The twin revolutions already mentioned: the Internet and the integrated circuit chip. Together the two heralded the beginning of the network age, a more distinct break from the industrial era than anything that has occurred before it. What seems increasingly evident is that the primary condition of the network era is not just rapid change, but constant change.
The simple fact of asymmetry is what’s important. The point is that you can no longer assume that costs and benefits will be proportional to size. If anything, the opposite of that assumption is probably true: Today, the biggest threats to the status quo come from the smallest of places, from start-ups and rogues, breakaways and indie labs. As if that fact wasn’t daunting enough, we are having to deal with this swirl of new competitors as the problems we are grappling with are more complex than ever.
Principle 1: Emergence over Authority
Emergence is what happens when a multitude of little things—neurons, bacteria, people—exhibit properties beyond the ability of any individual, simply through the act of making a few basic choices: Left or right? Attack or ignore? Buy or sell?
Comparing the shifting of authority from the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia—an authoritative collection of experts vs a self-organizing community of bookworms for the common good—is a great indicator of this phase change.
This principle—emergence over authority—precedes the others because it provides the cornerstone on which the others rest.
Emergent systems presume that every individual within that system possesses unique intelligence that would benefit the group. This information is shared when people make choices about what ideas or projects to support, or, crucially, take that information and use it to innovate. This shift has become possible because the cost of innovation has plummeted as new tools have become widely available. Cheap, effective 3-D printers have made prototyping a breeze; knowledge once accessible only inside large corporations or academic institutions can now be found through online courseware or within communities like DIYbio, a collection of citizen scientists who engage in the kind of genetic experiments that were only recently the stuff of expensive, exclusive laboratories. Finally, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have built nearly frictionless platforms for raising money to develop anything from small art projects to major consumer appliances. These are real-time examples of emergence in action. They allow creators to test the validity of that unique information with a large group of potential customers.
All of these advances are creating a de facto system in which people worldwide are empowered to learn, design, develop, and participate in acts of creative disobedience. Unlike authoritarian systems, which enable only incremental change, emergent systems foster the kind of nonlinear innovation that can react quickly to the kind of rapid changes that characterize the network age.
Principle 2: Pull over Push
The best use of human resources is to pull them into a project, using just what’s needed, when it’s needed most. Timing is key; while emergence is about the use of the many, over the few, to solve problems, pull takes that notion one step further, using what’s needed only at the precise moment it’s needed most.
“Pull” draws resources from participants’ networks as they need them, rather than stockpiling materials and information.
The logic of pull would be that supply shouldn’t even be generated until demand has emerged.
Online gaming companies like Blizzard Entertainment embraced a pull strategy early, and in Blizzard’s case, quickly turned it to their great advantage. Blizzard treats its players and its community of fans as part of its organization—in fact, many players have become employees. Player-generated ideas have been incorporated into the game. The developers often share the inner workings of the game and even allow fans to use copyrighted content to create videos or other derivative goods. It’s very hard to see where the company ends and the customer begins in these systems.
Principle 3: Compasses over Maps
One of the problems is that our traditional educational system—and most of our business training—reward focus and execution, limiting the opportunity to become a “visionary.” Too much of our training is focused on solving known problems rather than imagining and exploring.
Of all the nine principles in the book, compasses over maps has the greatest potential for misunderstanding. It’s actually very straightforward: a map implies a detailed knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her own path.
Instead of rules or even strategy, the key to success is culture. Whether we are talking about our moral compass, our world view, or our sensibility and taste, the way that we set these compasses is through the culture that we create and how we communicate that culture through events, e-mail, meetings, blog posts, the rules that we make, and even the music that we play. It is more of a system of mythologies than some sort of mission statement or slogan
Principle 4: Risk over Safety
Like putting practice over theory, the principle of risk over safety may sound irresponsible, but it is essential for unlocking the full potential of the modern, low-cost innovation that enables it.
Google cofounder Larry Page told Wired, “[Most] companies decay slowly over time [because they] tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.”
Principle 5: Disobedience over Compliance
Disobedience, especially in crucial realms like problem solving, often pays greater dividends than compliance. Innovation requires creativity, and creativity—to the great frustration of well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) managers—often requires freedom from constraints.
the rule about great scientific advances is that to make them you have to break the rules. Nobody has ever won a Nobel Prize by doing what they’re told, or even by following someone else’s blueprints.
To stay ahead, you need to create and reward a culture of creative disobedience
Principle 6: Practice over Theory
Putting practice over theory means recognizing that in a faster future, in which change has become a new constant, there is often a higher cost to waiting and planning than there is to doing and then improvising.
We can’t over-depend on planning. Joi points to the time a Japanese firm paid consultants $3M to consider a $600,000 investment. This maps to facts vs. theories. Rather than spend your time and resources considering theories, we should try things, and fail or succeed, we’ll have actual facts of what works and what doesn’t. Building things to test and determine “facts” has become much cheaper than consultants.
Principle 7: Diversity over Ability
Groups of functionally diverse problem solvers outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers
Platforms like https://www.innocentive.com/ have had a lot of success crowdsourcing problem solving. Problems that haven’t been able to be solved by experts in the field are having success being solved by people that are removed from the field (since they don’t have the same blind spots, that are a result of the same pedigree and education as the experts that are trained in the given field).
Contests have cracked some of the toughest scientific and technological challenges in history, including the search for a way to determine longitude at sea. The Longitude Prize was established by an act of Britain’s Parliament in 1714 after a host of brilliant scientists, including Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Christiaan Huygens, Edmond Halley, and Isaac Newton, had tried and failed to come up with an answer. The winning solution, one of more than 100 submissions, was a highly accurate chronometer that enabled the exact triangulation of location. It came from John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker from the English countryside.
Principle 8: Resilience over Strength
Resilience over strength. Rather than bulk up and resist failure, invest the same resources in recovery.
We want students who can adapt their understanding to new contexts. Resilience is adaptive; strength is resistant.
Principle 9: Systems over Objects
Objects exist in isolation; systems are objects in relationship. With the proliferation of objects in the world, the future likely belongs to those who understand the web of relationships, ie those with a systems perspective. This means developing an understanding of context: the reasons why something is true, and why it makes sense with everything else you know.