Harari is already back! 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

When I saw Harari‘s third book, I had some concerns. Could he write another great book after amazing Sapiens but less good Homo Deus. And why so fast?

Indeed the first part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is scary not to say very bad. It is full of anxiety and I am not sure it is based on facts or even truth like his previous books… Indeed this first part is even misleading because when I read “Sapiens explored the past, Homo Deus explored the future and 21 lessons explores the present” on the book cover, I discovered the first part is about the possible scary future based on artificial intelligence and biotechnologies. But this is the future, not the present.

Fortunately, I recovered the Harari I like in the beginning of part II. In chapter 5, Community, he shows that we are real, physical beings, not virtual, augmented ones. In chapter 6, Civilization, he fights against the concept of clash of civilizations. “There is one civilization in the world” is the subtitle. So let me just quote Harari here [Pages 94-5]

More importantly, the analogy between history and biology that underpins the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis is false. Human groups – all the way from the small tribes to huge civilisations – are fundamentally different from animal species, and historical conflicts greatly differ from natural selection processes. Animal species have objective identities that endure for thousands upon thousands of generations. Whether you are a chimpanzee or a gorilla depends on your genes rather than your beliefs, and different genes dictate distinct social behaviours. Chimpanzees live in mixed groups of males and females. They compete for power in building coalitions of supporters from among both sexes. Amid gorillas, in contrast, a single dominant male establishes a harem of females, and usually expels any adult male that might challenge his position. Chimpanzees cannot adopt gorilla- like social arrangements; gorillas cannot start organizing themselves like chimpanzees; and as far as we know exactly the same social systems have characterized chimpanzees and gorillas not only in recent decades, but for hundreds of thousands of years.
You find nothing like that among humans. Yes, human groups may have distinct social systems, but these are not genetically determined, and they seldom endure for more than a few centuries. Think of twentieth-century Germans, for example. In less than a hundred years the Germans organized themselves into six very different systems: the Hohenzollern Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany), and finally democratic reunited Germany. Of course, the Germans kept their language and their love of beer and bratwurst. But is there some unique German essence that distinguishes them from all other nations, and that has remained unchanged from Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel? And if you come up with something, was it also there 1,000 years ago or 5,000 years ago?

Humor and bureaucracy (Part II)

This is the second and final part of an unusual post topic, humor and bureaucracy. See part I if you missed it.

The author has a comment in the end, which is interesting. ‘The problem with you is that you refuse to take anything seriously – not Communism, not me… Not even yourself.’ ‘That’s true,’ I said ‘but I take not taking anything seriously very seriously.’ [Page 307]

´The Communist economy was very bad at producing everything – except jokes. They were very good at jokes.´ [Page 222]

Many Communist jokes were adapted into ones referring to the shortcomings of Western economies. ´Why does an Austin Allegro have a heated rear window? So you can keep your hands warm when you push it’. [Page 300]

How does a clever Russian Jew talk to a stupid Russian Jew?
by telephone from new York.
[Page 211]

What is the definition of a Russian string quartet?
A Soviet orchestra back from a US tour.
[Page 212]

Do you know why Romania will survive the end of the world?
Because it is fifty years behind everyone else! [Page 263]

My favorite one follows…

Leonid Brezhnev wanted to commission a portrait to be entitled ´Lenin in Poland’. Russian painters, being schooled strictly in the Realist school, were unable to paint an event that had never actually occurred,
´Comrade Brezhnev, we would like to do it, but we cannot. It goes against our training,´ replied each of the man artists approached by Brezhnev. Finally, in desperation, Brezhnev was forced to ask the old Jewish painter Levy.
´of course, I prefer to portray actual events, but I’ll do the painting for you, Comrade. It would be my great honour.´ Levy commenced work on the painting.
Finally the day of the unveiling arrived. Everyone gasped as the cloth was removed to reveal the picture of a man in bed with a woman who looked like Lenin’s wife.
Brezhnev asked, horrified, ´Who is that man?
´That’s Trotsky said the artist.
´And who,´ Brezhnev enquired, is that woman?´
´That is Lenin’s wife, Comrade Brezhnev.´
´But where is Lenin?´
´He’s in Poland,´ Levy explained.

[Page 207]

Now you may want to explore your favorite ones…

Why did Aaron Swartz die?

As a follow-up of my previous post Aaron Swartz – The Idealist, here are a few additional notes from this very moving and intelligent book.

So why did he die? You must read the book. But here is a sentence close to the end [page 268]: “Swartz saw things differently, and, indeed, devoted much of his life to the notion that the only way that the world ever improved was by allowing people to open things up. This notion […] is Swartz’s legacy. It is also his challenge to the world he left behind.”

Corporations continue to deploy law and rhetoric to combat the situational ethics of unauthorized downloading, to argue that copyright is a zero-sum game. Conflicts recur. The actors may change, but the script remains the same. [Page 271]

A surprising argument is against Apple and Steve Jobs: Swartz depicted Apple as “a ruthless, authoritarian organization” that flouted labor standards and Jobs himself as a martinet who insisted on controlling every aspect of the user experience. His megalomania manifested in Apple’s portable music players: sterile white rectangles that could be neither opened nor modified by the end user. “Jobs couldn’t abide people opening things”. [Page 267]

A stronger quote taken from Swartz’s blog: Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than to permit pleasure. If you ask your boss for leave of absence from the office on some legitimate occasion, his love of power will derive more satisfaction from a refusal than from a consent. If you require a building permit, the petty official concerned will obviously get more pleasure from saying «No» than from saying «Yes». It is this sort of thing which makes the love of power such a dangerous motive. — Bertrand Russell [Page 254]

Peters would like to have a balanced view of the situation: Property holders are but one party to the social contract. That is supposed to govern our polity, and their interests are not the only ones that matter. There is a middle ground between functionally eternal copyright and wholesale anarcho-syndicalism. [Page 268]

What Is Innovation?

So what is innovation? I had already addressed the question in 2015 in Invention, Entrepreneurship and Innovation. My colleague Federico gave me a few days ago another definition of Innovation from MIT’s Bill Aulet.

Innovation = Invention ∗ Commercialization

You will find the video here.

And here some extracts:

So could it have been “Innovation equals invention?” No, often people mistake these two things for the same thing. They are not. Innovation is something that generates value for the world. It makes something faster, better, cheaper. It gives someone some great satisfaction. An invention is an idea, a technology, a patent. In and of itself, it does not generate value. So these two are not the same thing. And sometimes you see them interchange. And that’s not correct.

So innovation equals invention times commercialization. And when we look at this equation of innovation, something of value, it requires a new idea. And then, it requires someone or some organization that is going to commercialize that idea and to make it a value to the world. So it’s important to understand that an idea by itself is not valuable. Ideas are cheap. Is the commercialization when combined with it that makes them extraordinarily valuable. So while sometimes when I used to say invention plus commercialization, in fact, it’s times.

It’s a product because if I don’t have one, then it’s zero. Then, I have no innovation. If I have no new idea, I can’t commercialize anything. Therefore, it’s zero. If I have an invention and no commercialization, I have no innovation as well. So it’s actually a product. It’s, in fact, the commercialization aspect of it that’s very, very difficult.

If you look at the most innovative company in the world today, which I would argue is Apple, the underlying inventions that created Apple, great innovations starting with the Mac, did not come from themselves. It actually came from Xerox PARC. It was windows, icon, mouse, pointer. That invention, they commercialized to create innovation, which created terrific value in the marketplace and for their customers and for themselves, their investors as well. Likewise after that, you look again that the invention for the underlying and enabling idea, technology from the iPod was MP3, which did not come from Apple, again. That came from Fraunhofer. But what Apple was terrific at was commercialization to create innovation and, again, to create great value for their customers and their shareholders. So this definition of innovation we found very, very helpful to make clear that innovation is a combination of a new idea, a new technology. But then, it has to be commercialized and mapped to some customer in the real world where it will generate value.

Thanks Federico 🙂

Google is 20 years old

Google was incorporated in California on September 4, 1998 so the company is just 20 years old today. The technology is older, it was called BackRub initially (in 1996) and was an internal web site at Stanford University, google.stanford.edu and in September 1997, google.com was registered as an independant web site. You can see below some historic images

and the various logos.

There’ve been many books about Google, some of them are great. I blogged about most of them, Work Rules! a few weeks ago, In The Plex in mid 2015, How Google Works in late 2014, Dogfight in early 2014, I’m Feeling Lucky in 2012. Indeed I blogged a lot about the company as you may see from the Google tag.

If Fairchild was the emblematic Silicon Valley company, founded in the 50s, it was followed by Intel in the 60s, Apple, in the 70s, the 80s have seen Cisco and Sun Microsystems, and Google symbolizes the 90s (Yahoo might be forgotten soon). Facebook belongs to the 2000s, the 2010 decade is still open I think. But the lessons learnt from the years of Google are just unique. The technology, the product, the startup growth, the teams have just changed the way we look at business for good and sometimes bad….

Advice to young (and old) people by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba

Thanks to my dear colleagues for mentioning to me this moving, inspiring interview from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba. He is giving advice to people from any age related to work and entrepreneurship.

If you’re 25 years old, do not worry, any mistake is an income.

Before 20 years old, be a good student.
Before 30 years old, follow somebody. Go to a small company, you learn the passion, you learn to dream. It’s not which company you go, it’s which boss you follow.
Between 30 and 40 years old, work for yourself. Time to be an entrepreneur.
Between 40 and 50 years old, do the thing you are good at. It’s too late to do something new.
When you are 50 to 60 years old, work for the young people.
When you are over 60, spend time for yourself. Go to the beach!

But when you are 25, make enough mistakes. You fall, you stand up, you fall, you stand up.

Aaron Swartz – The Idealist

I had heard like many of you probably of Aaron Swartz who committed suicide in January 2013 at age 26 after being prosecuted for computer fraud. So when I was advised to read The Idealist, I did not hesitate much before buying it.

The book is divided in two parts: a short history of copyright in the USA since the beginning of the nineteenth century and the story of Aaron Swartz himself. In the first part, the author, Justin Peters, shows the complexity of one of the pillars of intellectual property. You may have a look at my previous posts on the topic with tag #intellectual-property and particularly the profound work of Boldrin and Levine Against Intellectual Monopoly. I will only mention a short paragraph, page 46, of Peters’ book: But in nineteenth-century America, the concept of intellectual property was not yet sacrosanct – and the interests of the readers were not inextrically bound to those of authors. In congressional chambers, lawmakers openly wondered whether international copyright constituted a tax on knowledge and compared literary property to industrial monopoly.

© The Dusty Rebel

As for Aaron Swartz, Three years after [he] died, his story is still on many people’s minds. A large street-art mural of his face, set next to the words RIP AARON SWARTZ, adorns the side of a building in Brooklyn. […] Every year around his birthday , Swartz’s friends and admirers worldwide organize a series of weekend-long “hackatons” intended to stimulate the sorts of social projects Swartz cherished. [Page 14]

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock – Conclusion: the obligation to dissent

It took me a while to read Bock’s book. It is dense, ambitious, convincing, despite the fact that “Google sounds too good to be true” [Page 318]. There would be so much to say and the diversity of topics addressed by Bock is so broad. If you deal with people, if you manage teams, I think you should read it (I do not manage people and still I think it will be immensely useful to me!).

Another example after my four posts: Bock mentions of of McKinsey values: “uphold the obligation to dissent” [Page 319]. And an example follows on the same page: I was serving a client whose merger was yet to prove disastrous. The client asked for a recommendation on how best to set up a venture capital business. The data were pretty clear. Aside from a few notable examples, like Intel Capital,most corporate venture-capital efforts were failures. they lacked the expertise, clarity of purpose, and physical proximity to where the most lucrative deals were being hatched. I told the senior partner it was a bad idea. I showed him the data. I explained that there were almost no examples of these kinds of efforts being successful, and none that I could find that were thousands of miles outside of Silicon Valley and run by people who lacked any engineering background.
He told me that the client was asking how to set it up, not whether to to set it up, and that I should focus on answering the client’s question.
Perhaps he was right. Or perhaps he had some superior insight into the issue that trumped my data, Maybe he’d already made that argument to the client, and they’d rejected it.
But to me it felt like I’d failed.I thought the obligation to dissent required me to speak up, so it was all the more gut-wrenching to see my concern brushed aside.

Again Google might sound too good to be true, but this is the 5th or 6th book I read about Google from insiders and from outsiders, and the messages are quite consistent. A final quote from page 339: In the introduction I posited that there are two extreme models of how organizations should be run. The heart of this book is my belief that you can choose what type of organizations you want to create, and I’d be shown you some of the tools to do so. The “low-freedom” extreme is the command-and-control organization, where employees are managed tightly, worked intensely, and discarded.The “high-freedom” extreme is based on liberty, where employees are treated with dignity and given a voice in how the company evolves.
Both models can be very profitable, but this book presumes that the most talented people on the planet will want to be part of a freedom-driven company. And freedom-driven companies, because they benefit form the best insight and passion of all their employees are more resilient and better sustain success.

Steve Jobs: “Just Ask”

It’s a famous story for Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs fans. But I had never seen it told by the founder of Apple himself. It shows not only what an entrepreneur is but also the openness of the region at the time and probably still today… It’s nice and short… Watch it.

“I never found anybody that did not want to help me if I asked them for help”

Thanks to the student who gave me the link! 🙂

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock (part IV) – Managers

Google has been famous for defiance of authority. Bock develops this further.

At google, we have always had a deep skepticism about management. This is just how engineers think: managers are a Dilbertian layer that at best protects the people doing the actual work from the even more poorly informed people higher up the org chart. But our Project Oxygen research, which we’ll cover in depth in chapter 8, showed the managers in fact do many good things. It turns out that we are not skeptical about managers per se. Rather, we are profoundly suspicious of power, and the way managers historically have abused it. [Page 118]

Acton who said “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” also wrote: Great mean are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority, there is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns or justifies the means. [Pages 119-20]

It was such a deeply held belief that in 2002 Larry and Sergey eliminated all manager roles in the company. We had over three hundred engineers at the time, and anyone who was a manager was relieved of management responsibilities. Instead every engineer in the company reported to Wayne Rosing. It was a short-lived experiment. Wayne was besieged with requests for expense report approvals and for help in resolving interpersonal conflicts, and within six weeks the managers were reinstated.
[Page 190]

Still Project Oxygen initially set out to prove that managers don’t matter ended up demonstrating that good managers were crucial. [Page 188]. I will let you read Chapter 8 and here are the 8 rules from the study [Page 195]:
1- Be a good coach.
2- Empower the team and do not micromanage.
3- Express interest/concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.
4- Be very productive/results-oriented.
5- Be a good communicator – listen and share information.
6- Help the team with career development.
7- Have a clear vision/strategy for the team.
8- Have important technical skills that help advise the team.

I cannot finish this new post without mentioning a link given by Laszlo Bock about the history of Silicon Valley: “Silicon Valley’s Favorite Stories”, Bits (blog), New York Times, February 5, 2013.

Robert Noyce, right, set up an atmosphere of openness and risk at Fairchild Semiconductor.Credit Courtesy of Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos