Genius?

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Last week, I posted a technology blog post that talked about the grinding lifestyle in Silicon Valley. Frightening stuff.

Another thing that Silicon Valley brings to mind is the idea of the “Lone Genius.” Their names pop right to mind: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and many others.

However, the idea of the “lone genius” has become something of an urban legend especially as it involves innovation.

But Joshua Wolf Shenk challenges that in his new book, Powers of Two. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times review of his book:

The pair is a precious unit — private, generative, even holy. We can explore a couple’s inner workings if we have an invitation to do so. Otherwise, we must use any available external means: letters in archives, revealing anecdotes, loose-lipped quips in interviews. In order to understand creativity, we must learn from couples, Joshua Wolf Shenk argues in his new book, “Powers of Two.” Defying the myth of the lone genius, he makes the case that the chemistry of creative pairs — of people, of groups — forms the primary (albeit frequently hidden) structural basis of innovation.

Pairs don’t often let us pry them apart, looking to see who contributed what. John Lennon wrote what would become “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul McCartney came up with “Penny Lane” as a rejoinder, yet their music is credited to both of them, written “eyeball to eyeball,” as Lennon put it, or “like mirrors” in McCartney’s view. Neal Brennan and Dave Chappelle have long agreed to keep private who wrote what in their comic sketches.

“People always ask Ulay and me the same questions,” the artist Marina Abramovic told Shenk about her former partner. “ ‘Whose idea was it?’ or ‘How was this done?’ . . . But we never specify. Everything was interrelated and interdependent.” The daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie said that her parents’ work was a fused endeavor. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish their contributions by looking at their laboratory notebooks, where handwriting by each covers the pages. Shenk’s “Powers of Two” is a rare glimpse into the private realms of such duos. He writes with his face “pressed up against the glass” of paired figures from the present and the past — adding the likes of Steve Jobs and Steve ­Wozniak, ­Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. ­Tolkien to the pairs mentioned above.

Intrigued? You can read the entire article here.

A New Approach to Eating

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If you need more evidence regarding how much Silicon Valley has come to dominate our lives, you need only look at the statistics: In 2016, the five top U.S. companies based on market capitalization where all tech companies. That trend continues today.

Now this trend is moving into our kitchens. Amazon has bought Whole Foods. Some didn’t see this coming, but in a prescient article some years ago entitled, “Rethinking Eating,” here’s what the writer suggested:

Having radically changed the way we communicate, do research, buy books, listen to music, hire a car and get a date, Silicon Valley now aims to transform the way we eat. Just as text messages have replaced more lengthy discourse and digital vetting has diminished the slow and awkward evolution of intimacy, tech entrepreneurs hope to get us hooked on more efficient, algorithmically derived food.

Call it Food 2.0.

Following Steve Jobs’s credo that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” a handful of high-tech start-ups are out to revolutionize the food system by engineering “meat” and “eggs” from pulverized plant compounds or cultured snippets of animal tissue. One company imagines doing away with grocery shopping, cooking and even chewing, with a liquid meal made from algae byproducts.

You can read the entire article here.

Innovation on Steroids

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Everyone agrees innovation is good…saying it’s not is like arguing against motherhood and apple pie. But what is innovation? How do you know if you “have it?” If you want more, how do you get it?

I always wondered about those questions, until John Michaelson’s article in the Wall Street Journal helped answer those questions. His thesis – that the financial crisis opened the economy to new forms of growth which are about to start pouring down – is compelling.

To no one’s surprise, much of it has to do with technology. Here is part of what he says:

Each decade for the past 60 years, we have seen a thousand-fold increase in world-wide processing power, bandwidth and storage. At the same time, costs have fallen by a factor of 10,000. Advances in these platforms, in themselves, do not produce innovation. But they facilitate the development and deployment of entirely new applications that take advantage of these advances. Amazing new applications are almost never predictable. They come from human creativity. That is one reason they almost never come from incumbent companies. But once barriers to innovation are lowered, new applications follow.
With that as a teaser, you can read the full article here.

Our Robot Partners

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Americans – like most people everywhere – have a conflicted relationship with artificial intelligence, autonomy, and robots. Popular culture has a great deal to do with this.

One of the most iconic films of the last century, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had as its central theme, the issue of autonomy of robots (the unmanned vehicles of the time). Few who saw the movie can forget the scene where astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole consider disconnecting HAL’s (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) cognitive circuits when he appears to be mistaken in reporting the presence of a fault in the spacecraft’s communications antenna. They attempt to conceal what they are saying, but are unaware that HAL can read their lips. Faced with the prospect of disconnection, HAL decides to kill the astronauts in order to protect and continue its programmed directives. While few today worry that a 21st century HAL will turn on its masters, the issues involved with fielding increasingly-autonomous unmanned systems are complex, challenging and contentious.

At the next level down from the notion of robots becoming our masters is the issue of these robots taking our jobs. President Obama suggested as much in one of his last addresses as president.

There is vastly more heat than light on this issue. That’s why I found this article, “Learning to Love Our Robot Co-workers,” so revealing. Here is part of what it said:

“The most important frontier for robots is not the work they take from humans but the work they do with humans — which requires learning on both sides.”

Intrigued? You can read the full article here.

Nurturing Innovation

Does the government nurture innovation? Most people are polarized on this issue. But amid the noise, a thoughtful op-ed by Joe Nocera sheds some light where there is mostly heat. Here is part of what he said:

“Manzi’s essential point is that American innovation — the key to our prosperity — has always relied, to some extent, on government support. In the early days of the republic, he writes, Alexander Hamilton proposed government help for the developing manufacturing industries — “the high-tech sector of its day.” Hamilton’s basic insight, he adds, was “that the enormous economic value that innovative industries could offer the nation merited public efforts to enable their success.”

And for most of this country’s history, that premise was embraced. In the early 1800s, West Point was founded “in large part to develop a domestic engineering capability.” In 1843, “Congress allocated the money to build a revolutionary telegraph line from Washington D.C. to Baltimore.” In the late 19th century, the government made investments “in biology and health innovation.” Right up until the 1970s, Manzi writes, the free market was paved “with specific interventions to provide infrastructure and to promote incremental, innovation-led growth.” This was The American System.

And then came the age of computers, which, writes Manzi, caused “the center of gravity” for innovation to shift from large institutions — not just the government, but research-centric firms like Bell Labs — toward “newer, more nimble competitors.” Even here, though, government never completely went away. Much of the early Internet, after all, was either funded or developed by a government agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.”

Read more about nurturing innovation.

Design Thinking

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When most people think about innovation they think thing of things, of widgets. But widgets don’t innovate, people do.

Two Stanford professors teach a course that has a unique twist. It’s called “Designing Your Life,” and it’s the most popular course on campus. Why? People want to live more creatively.

Here’s how the New Times article that provides a window on the course, and on their book, “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life”

You’re going to learn how to find a fulfilling career. You’re going to learn how to better navigate life’s big-moment decisions and kill your “wicked problems” dead. How? By training yourself to think like a designer.

After nine years of teaching their secrets to future Google product managers and start-up wunderkinds, Mr. Burnett and Mr. Evans are opening up the curriculum to everyone. “What do I want to be when I grow up?” and “Am I living a meaningful life?” aren’t only subjects for late-night pot-fueled dorm hangouts, the men said.

“The question of ‘What do I do with the rest of my one wild and wonderful life?’ is on everyone’s mind,” Mr. Evans said.

Mr. Burnett recalled a conversation with Stanford’s dean of the engineering department, who was about to retire. “He said: ‘Can I take your class? Because I don’t know what I’m going to be now that I’m not the dean anymore.’”

Mr. Burnett added: “One of the meta-narratives out there is that you should figure it out by 25, or maybe it’s 27 now. Then there’s the other thing of failure to launch, that millennials are slackers. Part of the permission we give people is: Reframe this. You’re not supposed to have it figured out.”

Read more about how to think like a designer.

You – Innovator

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Can you be an engine of innovation where you work. If you DON’T work in Silicon Valley, you may think that innovation is something only done there. But wait, read more.

No doubt, Silicon Valley has changed how we work, for better or worse. Our smartphones keep us connected to the office all the time while internet searches bring the world’s information to our fingertips. But people may not realize that it is the subtler aspects of how tech companies operate that often have a more lasting effect on other industries.

The “agile” part of this increasingly popular management concept is simple: Rather than try to do giant projects that take months or even years, create small teams that do a bit at a time. This way, small problems don’t balloon into enormous ones hidden inside a huge bureaucracy. And progress can be measured in small steps — one little project at a time.

Read more about “You, the innovator”

Chaos Monkeys

If there is one “entity” that has fascinated America – and likely the world – it’s Silicon Valley. It’s where we look for innovation, for cutting-edge ideas, and for the products and services that influence our lives. While Silicon Valley is a catch-all phrase for both a region and an industry, to paraphrase the Willie Nelson song, “It is always on our mind.”

But what do we really know about Silicon Valley? The answer is: Not much. Now, Antonio Garcia Martinez has written and insider’s account: Chaos Monkeys. Here is part of what David Streitfeld offers in his review of Martinez’s book that really does take you deep inside Silicon Valley:

“The literature of Silicon Valley is exceedingly thin. The tech overlords keep clear of writers who are not on their payrolls or at least in their thrall. Many in the valley feel that bringing the digital future to the masses is God’s work. Question this, and they tend to get touchy. Anger them, and they might seek revenge. The billionaire investor Peter Thiel, outed by the local arm of the Gawker media empire, secretly financed a lawsuit to destroy it. Silicon Valley did not rise en masse and say this was seriously beyond the pale. No surprise, then, that there are so few books investigating what it really takes to succeed in tech (duplicity often trumps innovation) or that critically examine such omnipresent, comforting fables as “We’re not in it for the money.””

“Antonio García Martínez’s Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, a book whose bland all-purpose title belies the fact that this is a valley account like no other. The first hint that something is different here comes with the dedication: “To all my enemies: I could not have done it without you.” This is autobiography as revenge, naming names and sparing few, certainly not the author. “I was wholly devoid of most human boundaries or morality,” he notes in passing. In other words, he was a start-up chief executive.”

“The heart of the book is the period García Martínez spent at his start-up, which was intended to allow small businesses to efficiently advertise on Google. It was an auspicious moment. While the rest of the world was struggling to recover from the recession, the office parks of the valley were full of aggressive young men who had made pots of money by being early employees of Google. To prove they were not merely lucky, they needed to score again. Everyone was terrified of missing the next Facebook or, a little later, the next Airbnb or Uber. Smart entrepreneurs capitalized on these fears.”

A thought provoking insider’s view? You can read the full article here

Is Innovation Still Pumping?

We’re living in an age of innovation. We’ve witnessed more change since the turn of the century than in any previous fifteen years. These new innovations seem to come faster every year.

Because of this we expect revolutionary new technology to spring up out of nowhere. And when it doesn’t, we predict “an end of innovation. Here is what Farhad Manjoo, the Wall Street Journal’s technology shared regarding “bounding our expectations.”

First, stop clamoring for the “next big thing.” Were you disappointed, once again, that Apple didn’t release something amazing and new this year—a TV or a smartwatch, say? Were you bummed that there were few revolutionary features on the latest smartphones? Have you concluded that the tech business is boring, that there isn’t any more innovation, that we live in uninteresting times? If so, I’ve got two words for you: Grow up.

I, too, constantly yearn for mind-blowing new tech. But I’ve been getting tired of the claim that just because we haven’t seen something on the order of the smartphone or tablet in the last few years, the tech industry can no longer innovate. The problem with this argument is that the touchscreen smartphone (and its cousin the tablet) was a singularly novel, industry-shattering device, and we’re unlikely to see anything as groundbreaking in a generation.

Read more about what we can expect from innovation here.

Harness Your Creativity

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Are you waiting for that “genius moment” to harness your creativity? Or perhaps you’ve latched on to that shaman who portrays himself or herself as the lone genius. Get over it.

Joshua Wolf Shenk explodes the myth of the lone genius as the single paragon of creativity. Here’s part of what he says:

Where does creativity come from? For centuries, we’ve had a clear answer: the lone genius. The idea of the solitary creator is such a common feature of our cultural landscape (as with Newton and the falling apple) that we easily forget it’s an idea in the first place.

But the lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: the creative network, as with the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at “The Daily Show” or — the real heart of creativity — the intimate exchange of the creative pair, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney and myriad other examples with which we’ve yet to fully reckon.

Today, the Romantic genius can be seen everywhere. Consider some typical dorm room posters — Freud with his cigar, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the pulpit, Picasso looking wide-eyed at the camera, Einstein sticking out his tongue. These posters often carry a poignant epigraph — “Imagination is more important than knowledge” — but the real message lies in the solitary pose.

In fact, none of these men were alone in the garrets of their minds. Freud developed psychoanalysis in a heated exchange with the physician Wilhelm Fliess, whom Freud called the “godfather” of “The Interpretation of Dreams”; King co-led the civil rights movement with Ralph Abernathy (“My dearest friend and cellmate,” King said). Picasso had an overt collaboration with Georges Braque — they made Cubism together — and a rivalry with Henri Matisse so influential that we can fairly call it an adversarial collaboration. Even Einstein, for all his solitude, worked out the theory of relativity in conversation with the engineer Michele Besso, whom he praised as “the best sounding board in Europe.”

Read more about this here…and stop waiting for that genius moment – find a partner to collaborate with!