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A few weeks ago a I wrote a post titled It’s Not Right vs. Left, It’s Old vs. New about the conflict between innovators and incumbents. As a society, we are just starting to wander into the real structural conflict around this and I don’t believe our government, either at the local, state, or federal level, really knows what to do about it, or how to effectively engage in it.
If you want a magnificent example of this, all you need to do is look at what’s going on with Bitcoin. Actually, you just need to read two relatively short “open letters” which appeared on the web this morning.
Now, read Fred Wilson from USV’s blog post A Letter To Senator Manchin where he explains how regulatory activity in the US is already inhibiting innovation around Bitcoin, rebuts Manchin’s perspective, and analogizes Bitcoin to the Internet.
It’s probably no surprise that I completely agree with Fred’s perspective.
For disclosure, I don’t have much of a financial stake in this game – I own slightly less than 20 Bitcoins (I’ve used fractions to buy some stuff), have no intention to be a Bitcoin trader (I don’t actively trade individual public company stocks or currencies either), and I don’t have a direct equity investment in any company around the Bitcoin ecosystem (although I have several investments in VC funds who do.) I originally bought the Bitcoins for the Coursera course Startup Engineering which I managed to get through the fourth week of before I couldn’t make enough time to keep up with it. I thought I’d bought 10 but was surprised to see a few months ago that I had 20.
While I don’t have a financial stake, I have a huge intellectual and emotional stake in this. Bitcoin is a fascinating innovation. It has the potential to transform a number of different things, where fiat currencies and payment mechanisms are merely two of them. As a computer science problem, Bitcoin is a fascinating one. And, as an innovation vector, it’s a great example of “new” in a world that is desperately trying to hold on to “old.”
We are going to have a very rocky road as a society over the next 40 years. As with every generational shift, there is a lot of disruption (the 1960′s immediately come to mind.) But the amount of change, pace of change, democratization of innovation and entrepreneurship, connectivity of communication around the world, and intellectual complexity of the new innovations being created will dwarf anything we’ve seen as a species since our first moments of sentience.
Bitcoin is just a visible 2014 example of this. As Fred says at the end of his post
“When something as new and as different as Bitcoin emerges, it is tempting to want to “put the Genie back into the bottle” and protect ourselves from it. But thankfully the US did not do that with the Internet. The impact of the commercial Internet on the US economy and our society as a whole has been massive and overwhelmingly positive over the past twenty years. We should approach Bitcoin in exactly the same way and if we do, I expect the benefits we will see will be equally important, impactful, and beneficial to our economy and our society.”
My message to all the incumbents out there is a simple one. The more you try to organize and control “the new”, the harder it is going to be on society. The new is going to route around things, just like the Internet routes around things. Rather than fight innovation, embrace it, encourage it, iterate on it, accept the mess of it, and play with it, rather than against it. It’s more fun and will serve us better in the long run.
For the past 15 years, I’ve signed everything in green ink. I don’t remember how it started – it just did. I think I found a green Paper Mate felt tip pen that I liked and just started using it. So – if you have something from me signed in green, you know it’s an original. Otherwise it’s a copy or has an electronic signature.
About once a month I get a document back from a lawyer with the request to “please sign in blue ink.” I’ve always found that amusing, so I do.
This morning I wandered by my partner Jason’s office and told him about the regular, recurring requests to please sign in blue ink. He looked at me like I was from Mars, which might be true. I showed him the request. He said, “I don’t remember which class in law school taught that documents need to be signed in blue ink.”
Just a reminder that it takes a long, long time for archaic business practices to completely disappear. Fax machine anyone?
“In Washington DC, it’s not right vs. left, it’s old vs. new” – Senator Michael Bennet
I’ve been thinking about this since I heard it last Sunday evening in a conversation with FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. I was part of a fascinating private group discussion with him and came away with a lot of respect for him and appreciation for how he approaches things. While I’m on a year hiatus from political stuff, I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet with him given my close relationship with Phil Weiser (CU Law Dean), and Phil’s deep respect for Tom.
In the midst of the conversation, this line from Michael Bennet, one of our Colorado Senators, popped out.
Michael’s statement rang true with me. But it’s not just in Washington, it’s everywhere. This is the classic incumbent vs. innovator challenge and we are seeing it play out aggressively across all industries and geographies as the machines, especially the software in the machines, have the impact on society that many of us have been anticipating and investing in for a long time.
The confusion – and conflict – in our society around this is just beginning. The mess in DC is just a starting point. Suddenly cities like San Francisco are struggling to reconcile two diverging classes – the rich and the poor – with the middle rapidly being squeeze out of the city. Cities like Chicago and Seattle are seriously considering trying to regulate a new generation of innovators, in the form of Uber and Lyft, while at the same time trying to present themselves as forward thinking innovative places to live. We went through this last year in Denver with Uber and my instinct at the time was that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s a really big iceberg. The incumbents are extremely powerful and love the status quo. Sure – they aren’t stagnant, but they’ll use all the tools available to themselves to protect their flanks. And the attackers aren’t from the left or the right, but from the new.
I’ve spent my entire professional career working on the new. I’ve always felt frustrated by the incumbents, by the bureaucracies, and by the old way of doing things. I’m not very nostalgic and spend most of my energy looking and moving forward, rather than trying to protect what I have.
Over the past few years, I’ve felt like the dynamic I’m describing was accelerating. There were days I just felt like I was getting older, but when I reflect on it, it’s no different that it always has been throughout history. While time marches on linearly at a very consistent cadence, change does not. It comes in fits and spurts and is as chaotic as the early days of any fast growing company. It’s not predictable, and when it accelerates, lots of crazy shit starts to happen.
I don’t have a solution to this, nor do I think there is one since it’s a completely unstable and dynamic situation. Many humans instinctively resist change. We fear the uncertain. We try to control what we can’t control.
Accepting the mess is part of the beauty of being human. All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
At dinner last week, my long time friend Dave Jilk (we just celebrated our 30th friendship anniversary) tossed a hypothesis at me that as people age, they resist adopting new technologies. This was intended as a personal observation, not an ageist statement, and we devolved into a conversation about brain plasticity. Eventually we popped back up the stack to dealing with changing tech and at some point I challenged Dave to write an essay on this.
The essay follows. I think he totally nails it. What do you think?
People working in information technology tend to take a producer perspective. Though the notion of a “lean startup” that uses both Agile and Customer Development approaches is ostensibly strongly customer focused, the purpose of these methodologies is for the company to find an maximize its market, not specifically to optimize the user experience. The following is an observation more purely from the perspective of the consumer of information technology.
On average, as people age they resist adopting new technologies, only doing so slowly and where the benefits compellingly outweigh the time cost and inevitable frustrations. This resistance is not necessarily irrational – after a number of cycles where the new technology proves to be a fad, or premature, or less than useful, we learn that it may behoove us to wait and see. We want to accomplish things, not spend time learning tools that may or may not help us accomplish something.
Consequently, for many decades the pattern has been that technology adoption is skewed toward younger people, not only because they have not yet built up this resistance, but also because they are immersed in the particular new technologies as they grow up.
But something new is happening today, and it is evidence of accelerating rather than merely progressive technology change. Discrete technology advances are giving way to continuous technology advances. Instead of making a one-time investment in learning a new technology, and then keeping up with the occasional updates, it is increasingly necessary to be investing in learning on a constant, ongoing basis.
I will provide three examples. First, application features and user interfaces are increasingly in a state of continuous flux. From a user perspective, on any given day you may connect to Facebook or Gmail or even a business application like Salesforce.com, and find that there are new features, new layout or organization of screen elements, new keystroke patterns, even new semantics associated with privacy, security, or data entered and displayed. This is most prominent in online systems, but increasingly software updates are automatic and frequent on mobile devices and even full computer systems. On any given day, one may need to spend a significant amount of time re-learning how to use the software before being productive or experiencing the desired entertainment.
My mother is 86 years old. For perspective, when she was 20, television was a new consumer technology, and room-sized digital computers had just been invented. She uses the web, Yahoo mail, and Facebook, impressive feats in themselves for someone her age. But every time Yahoo changes their UI, she gets frustrated, because from her perspective it simply no longer works. The changes neither make things better for her nor add capabilities she cares about. She wants to send email, not learn a new UI; but worse, she doesn’t really know that learning a new UI is what she is expected to do.
Middle-aged people like me are better prepared to cope with these changes, because we’ve gotten used to them, but we still find them frustrating. Perhaps it is in part because we are busy and we have things we need to get done, but it is interesting to see how much people complain about changes to the Facebook interface or iOS updates or what have you. We can figure it out, but it seems more like a waste of time.
Young people gobble up these changes. They seem to derive value from the learning itself, and keeping up with the changes even has a peer pressure or social esteem component. Yes, this is in part because they also have fewer responsibilities, but that cannot be the entire explanation. They have grown up in a world where technology changes rapidly. They didn’t just “grow up with social media,” they grew up with “social media that constantly changes.” In fact, not only do they keep up with the changes on a particular social media service, they are always exploring the latest new services. Several times a year, I hear about a new service that is all the rage with teens and tweens.
A second example that is more esoteric but perhaps a leading indicator, is the rise of continuous integration in software development, not just with one’s own development team but with third-party software and tools. No longer is it sufficient to learn a programming language, its idiosyncrasies, its libraries, and its associated development tools. Instead, all of these tools change frequently, and in some cases continuously. Every time you build your application, you are likely to have some new bugs or incompatibilities related to a change in the language or the libraries (especially open source libraries). Thus, learning about the changes and fixing your code to accommodate them are simply part of the job.
This situation has become sufficiently common that some language projects (Ruby on Rails and Python come to mind) have abandoned upward compatibility. That’s right, you can no longer assume that a new version of your programming language will run your existing applications. This is because you are expected to keep up with all the changes all the time. Continuous integration, continuous learning. Older coders like me view this as a tax on software development time, but younger coders accept it as a given and seem to not only take it in stride but revel in their evolving expertise.
My final example, a little different from the others, is the pace of client device change. From 1981, when the IBM PC was introduced, until about 2005, one could expect a personal computer system to have a lifespan of 3-5 years. You could get a new one sooner if you wanted, but it would have reasonable performance for three years and tolerable for five. By then, the faster speed of the new machine would be a treat, and make learning the latest version of DOS, and later Windows, almost tolerable. Today, five years is closer to the lifespan of a device category. Your recent smartphone purchase is more likely to be replaced in 2017 by a smart watch, or smart eyewear, as it is by another smartphone. You won’t just have to migrate your apps and data, and learn the new organization of the screen – you will have to learn a new way to physically interact with your device. Hand gestures, eye gestures, speaking – all of these are likely to be part of the interface. Another five years and it is highly likely that some element of the interface will take input from your brain signals, whether indirectly (skin or electromagnetic sensors) or directly (implants). When you say you are having trouble getting your mind around the new device, you will mean it literally.
The foregoing is primarily just an observation, but it will clearly have large effects on markets and on sociology. It suggests very large opportunities but also a great deal of disruption. And this transition from generational learning to continuous learning is not the last word. Technology will not just keep advancing, it will keep accelerating. As the youth of today, accustomed to continuous learning, reach their 40s and beyond, they will become laggards and slow to adopt in comparison with their children. Even continuous learning will no longer be sufficient. What will that look like?
UberDenver and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick are hosting a rally at Galvanize after the Colorado Public Utilities Commission holds a public hearing on proposed rules changes that could shut UberDenver down.
I’ve had a number of private conversations since I wrote my post The Colorado PUC Trying to Shut Down UberDenver. I continue to think the whole situation is insane especially given our state government’s strong position on advancing innovation in Colorado. The PUC’s behavior is clearly protectionist, anti-innovation, and undermines many of the efforts of entrepreneurs in Colorado to advance and amplify innovation here.
Apparently, the FTC agrees. I just read the FTC comments on the proposed rule changes and they do a very direct job of addressing 6001(ff), 6301(a), and 6309(d) which are the things I called out in my original blog post on 1/30/13. The punch line from the FTC memo is “FTC staff is concerned that these three proposed changes may significantly impair competition in passenger vehicle transportation services, including innovative methods of competition enabled by new software applications (“applications”) that allow consumers to arrange and pay for services in new ways that they might prefer, and thus harm consumers.”
Given that the PUC’s stated mission (on their website) is to “serve the public interest by effectively regulating utilities and facilities so that the people of Colorado receive safe, reliable, and reasonably-priced services consistent with the economic, environmental and social values of our state” I’m hopeful the PUC comes to its senses and serves the public interest in this case, rather than try to create new rules that protect entrenched and incubent companies.
I’ve been told in the private conversations that I’ve had that this will be resolved soon in a way that makes sense. Until then, I continue to encourage anyone in Colorado who is pro-innovation to support Uber’s efforts here and, if you are around Monday, head down to Galvanize between 6pm and 9pm for an UberRally.