The Age of Founders of Start-ups – Again!

The age of founders of start-ups is a recurrent topic on this blog. You can just check it through hashtag #age. I have just updated my cap. table database with now 500 “famous-enough” companies for which I have compiled a lot of data. You can check here the most recent update with 450+ companies in mid 2018 – Some thoughts about European Tech. IPOs or a synthesis dated 2017 with 400 companies Equity in Startups.

I just looked at the age of 850 founders from these 500 companies. I think it is interesting. I hope you will agree… I am not even sure I need to comment much. Average age is 37 overall, 45 in biotech, 37 in hardware (electronics, telecom and computers, energy) and 32 in software/internet.

The Meaning and Value of Work according to Matthew Crawford

I began to read Eloge du Carburateur – Essai sur le sens et la valeur du travail (translated from the American essay Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work) by Matthew B. Crawford. I wrote a first post about why I began that book here.

Here is an interesting critique of artificial intelligence and the meaning of work (read on page 205 of the French edition & found on Google books)

“In John Searle’s famous critique of artificial intelligence, he asks us to imagine a man locked in a room, with only a slit connecting him to the outside world [1]. Through the door come pieces of paper with Chinese writing on them. The man does not know Chinese. Unbeknownst to him, the writing takes the form of questions. He is equipped with a set of instructions in English, for matching other Chinese symbols to the ones he is given. He passes these back through the slit, and they are taken to be answers to the questions. Searle’s point is that to perform the task, the man needn’t know any Chinese, and neither does a computer that does the same task as he. Some enthusiasts of artificial intelligence, insist that the system knows Chinese – somehow there is thinking without a thinker. But a less mystical position would leave it as a saying that it is the human programmer, who wrote up the instructions for matching Chinese answers to Chinses questions, who knows Chinese.

“The mechanic relying con computerized diagnostics finds himself in a position similar to that of the man in the Chinese room. The crucial stipulation in the thought experiment is that one could indeed have a set of rules that is fully adequate for matching answers to questions without any reference to the meaning of the words being trafficked in . Whether this is in fact possible is a deep question in linguistics and philosophy of midn, and there is no noncontroversial answer to it. Yet the thoughtless way in which work is often conceived seems to presume the stipulation is correct. We view human beings as inferior versions of computers.”

[1] John R. Searle, “Minds, Brains and Programs”, Behavioral and Brain Science, 3, n.3, September 1980.

I had noticed in my French post other interesting points:

“We are used to thinking of intellectual virtue and moral virtue as two very different things, but in my opinion this distinction is erroneous. The mutual involvement of ethics and knowledge is well understood by Robert Pirsig in what remains to my mind one of the most successful (and funniest) passages of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [More on wikipedia here]. (…) To be a good mechanic, it is necessary to know how to engage personally: I am a mechanic. On the other hand being a good mechanic means having a keen awareness of the fact that your task has nothing to do with the idiosyncrasies of your personality, that it has something universal. (…) The identification of this truth requires a certain disposition of the individual, a certain capacity of attention accompanied by a feeling of responsibility towards the motorcycle.” [Pages 113-115]

“Virtue is the effort to cross the veil of egocentric consciousness and to find the world as it really is. This effort is never completely successful because our own concerns constantly interfere with it. But getting out of oneself is the task of the artist, and also that of the mechanic.” [Page 117]

“So what advice should be given to young people? If you feel a natural inclination for university research, if you urgently need to read the hardest books and think you can spend four years doing it, then sign up for college. In fact, approach your university studies in a spirit of craftsmanship, immersing yourself in the world of humanities or natural sciences. But if it’s not the case, if the prospect of spending four more years sitting in a classroom gives you headaches, I have good news for you: nothing forces you to simulate the slightest interest in the student life for the simple purpose of making a decent living as an output. And if you still want to go to college, learn to do something during the holidays. You’ll have a better chance of feeling better about yourself, and possibly getting better paid, if you’re pursuing a freelance craftsman career than locked up in an open-space office (a “modular workstation” as they say elegantly ), to manipulate fragments of information or to play low quality “creatives”. Certainly, to follow this advice, perhaps it is necessary to possess a little rebellious personality, because this assumes to reject the path traced for a professional future conceived as obligatory and inevitable.” [Page 65]

“One of the principles of contemporary management is to abandon the management of details to the base and accumulate recognition of merit at the top. For leaders, the rule is to avoid making real decisions that may end up hurting their career but knowing how to cook a posteriori stories that allow them to interpret the least positive result in their favor.” [Page 61]

Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology

Following a recent post about critics of technosciences and a much older one about the failed promises of science, here is a very short post about a (very good) book written in French and not (yet) translated in English: Homme augmenté, humanité diminuéeD’Alzheimer au transhumanisme, la science au service d’une idéologie hégémonique mercantile (Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology.)

The author begins with his personal story, how his mother suffered and died from this terrible Alzheimer’s disease. Then he began to inquire about it and his doubts began to grow. We do not have to agree with everything author Philippe Baqué says, but we cannot avoid having the same doubts about where and how science and innovation drive us all. I hope these three short extracts will create the same reaction I felt:

[Page 71] Jean Maisondieu, a psychiatrist and author of Crépuscule de la Raison, la maladie d’Alzheimer en question (Sunset of reason, Alzheimer’s disease in question), often claims that Alzheimer’s disease does not exist, but the Alzheimer’s patients do exist for sure.

[Page 74] I reached the conlusion that patients are demented mostly because they were dying of fear, at the idea of death. The brains of Alzheimer’s patients might be altered, but these patients are mostly sick of fear.

[Page 260] I feel the need to ask the question again: what is transhumanism? An economic and political lobby? A technoreligion? A new eugenic ideology? The biggest science fraud of the 21st century?

Worth thinking about it… Is aging a disease? Is death a disease?

Steve Jobs in Paris in 1984

My friends at INRIA just mentioned to me a short but great interview of Steve Jobs by French Television in 1984, when he was asked if France could have similar start-ups to Silicon Valley. Here is his answer:


Even if you hear more the French translation, you can hear his voice too:
– Research level is good but concrete applications seem to be a problem, and this is an important step for innovation
– This is coming from a lack of companies ready to try
– The risk is seldom taken by large corporations, but by small ones
– You need many small firm with talented students and venture capital
– You also need champions you take as models, that enable saying “innovation is this”
– There is a more subtle problem, a cultural one: in Europe, failure is serious. If you fail in Europe right after university, it follows you for ever. In the USA, we keep failing all the time.
– What you also need is a solid software industry, because software is the new oil. You need hundreds of small firms and then you can dominate an industry.
– You need talented students, a good understanding of technology and encougare young people to create small firms.
– It’s all about private initiative. Big companies should not interfere, neither the government should. We should let entrepreneurs own it.

Thirty-five years later, is the situation different? And if he was still alive, would he say the same things? I let you judge …

Cynthia Fleury : To be Brave is sometimes to Endure, sometimes to Break up

I have already mentioned Cynthia Fleury on this blog, for example some of her books on Transhumanism is Science Fiction. I just read an interview of her on Telerama, Cynthia Fleury : “Etre courageux, c’est parfois endurer, parfois rompre”. It is so great, I just decided to translate it my way…

MesLivres-Cynthia-Fleury

Translated from Juliette Cerf. First published on Telerama on 30/08/2015, updated on 01/02/2018.

A philosopher and a psychoanalyst, she insists on how important it is for anyone to build her or his own destiny. It is a condition to protect democracy.

When she was a young doctoral student in philosophy, Cynthia Fleury dreamed of living on a back seat, to devote herself to research and writing, far from the hubbub of the city … Life decided differently and the young woman learnt with time how to live on stage. To be all round. She is now in her early 40s, used to debates and much appreciated by the media for her sharp speech and clear vision. Cynthia Fleury combines many activities: a researcher in political philosophy and a psychoanalyst, she teaches at the American University of Paris. She is a member of the advisory board of the National Ethics Committee, she is also part of Nicolas Hulot Foundation’s think tank for nature and humankind and she is contributor to the Paris medical and psychological emergency unit (Samu). From these different positions of observation, the philosopher watches the drifts and dysfunctions specific to the individual and democracy, at a time when, because of the crisis, everyone withdraws into oneself. How to cure this? How to bring back into the heart of the collective? It is these questions that she addresses in her new essay, Les irremplaçables (The Irreplaceable), which follows her reflection begun in The Pathologies of Democracy and The End of Courage.

Why this title, The Irreplaceable, which sends the reader towards a literary fiction horizon?

Literature is much more poweful than philosophy since it does not produce a doctrinaire, frozen discourse. With a title of a novel, I wanted to evoke the story of the self, the creative power of each. An irreplaceable being is indeed someone committing to a process of individuation, in other words in the construction of her or his own destiny. The book is published in the Blanche collection by Gallimard, which outside of fiction, has always been known for a tradition of philosophical existentialism, with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. It meant to invest the theme of irreplaceability in an existential and open way, while philosophical theorizing gives a sense of closure. What was at stake was to enter in a dynamic commitment and to create a responsibility for each of us: how does this individual destiny feed a more collective destiny? This is the essential question.

You enroll in the field of political philosophy; democracy is at the center of your thinking.

Yes, and the irreplaceable, at first, were for me the democrats. If I precisely talk about commitment, it’s because I do not live in the illusion of democratic durability. At a time when fundamentalisms, fascisms and populisms proliferate, how can we protect democracy? How do we make sure that individuals are concerned about preserving the rule of law? I realized that any individual who has not worked to develop a fair individuation will not care about preserving democracy. Self-care and concern for the city are intimately linked.

How?

Individuation and democracy work, I think, like a Möbius strip, as the two faces of the same reality. Of course, the rule of law produces the conditions the emergence of an individual, but it does not last if not revitalized, reinvented, reformed by free subjects. If the rule of law remains only a formal reality, it creates huge disappointments that threaten it. It is therefore necessary that it incarnates, and this body of the rule of law is that of the different individuals it gathers. But in recent years, neoliberalism has distorted the rule of law and disintigrated the subjects. The rule of law signs its death sentence: only a well-individuated subject cares about its preservation, and not the alienated subject we meet today.

“The construction of the rule of law is the adventure of this gap between principles and practice.”

You thus evoke the “entropic” drift of contemporary democracies. What is this about?

In thermodynamics, entropy measures the state of disorder of a system: it grows when it evolves towards an increased disorder. However, for thirty years, western democracies experience dynamics of disguise, delirious and unprecedented merchandising, which makes of us interchangeable, replaceable entities, servicing the “growth” idol. Everyone can experience it, whether in the world of finance, consumption, or ecology, through all these phenomena of capture, extreme rationalization, obscene profitability that do not question either their presuppositions nor their expectations. But the expression of democratic entropy is something else, it refers to the internal disorder of democracy, its dysfunctions that are of its very nature. This, Tocqueville has analyzed it perfectly when he defined democracy this way: good principles, theoretically correct and ethically acceptable, which produce perverse effects. The construction of the rule of law is the adventure of this gap between principles and practice.

Could you give an example?

According to Tocqueville, principles change into passions; thus, the passion of the principle of individuation is individualism. The individualistic subject is passionate about himself, self-centered, withdrawn, intoxicated by the intoxication of the self, while the individuated subject sets up a look at the outside world, unfolds and ensures a base, a foundation, which allows her or him to enter into a relationship with what is surrounding. The adventure of irreplaceability, the path to individuation, thus looks like, in many features, that of depersonalization. It’s not about becoming a personality, to put the ego on stage. On the contrary, the challenge is relational: it is a matter of decentering oneself to bind oneself to others, to the world, to meaning.

How to access this individuation?

To give time for oneself is not easily guaranteed. It is a never-ending requirement. To know oneself and to access the quality of being that one owes to the world, the subject must go through three dynamics of knowledge and behavior, which are as many fire tests: imagination, pain and humor. With the first one, the imaginatio vera, the subject produces a true imagination, which is an “agent”, which creates reality. This faculty of soul and heart, at the border of the sensible world and the intellectual world, has an unheard-of power of creation. In this respect, the imaginary, literary space is really the configuration space of reality; it is in no way avoiding reality, as we sometimes think. The imaginary, literary space allows us to verbalize and understand what reality is. The second faculty, pretium doloris, the price of pain, teaches us that the act of thought has a price and that access to the truth can be a painful experience. The trial of Socrates is the very symbol: knowing and knowing oneself mean being at risk.

What about humor?

The vis comica, the comic force, operates an effect of decentering, of distancing which makes the reflexive consciousness arise. The power of humor allows us to grasp the absurdity of reality, as well as our own inadequacy and shortage. While one discovers the absolute inanity, vanity, stupidity of the subject, one manages nevertheless to do something about it. This is essential for the process of individuation, which is primarily a consciousness of shortage, while individualism, infatuated by its pseudo-omnipotence, has totally forgotten that it was short. Individuation is a test of reality, an access to the truth. It is a saying that is obligatory and does not force, and thus renders the subject faithful to herself or himself, irreplaceable. It is a given word, an effort that the individual deploys to bind oneself to the discourse one states.

The brave, at the center of your essay The End of Courage, was already an irreplaceable subject for you?

Yes, irreducible to others, since the brave does not delegate to others the task of doing what is to be done. In The End of Courage, the reconquest of a democratic virtue, I show how ethics of courage are a way to fight against democratic entropy. This virtue, which brings together ethics and politics, is at the same time a tool for protecting the subject and for regulating societies. In the deep intimacy that the brave subject has with his conscience, there is the quality of a public commitment, for others. One can be alone, even against others, when one makes a courageous act, but this gesture always preserves a quality of connection with the community. In everyday life, to be brave is sometimes to endure, sometimes to break up; it may be leaving a job when you are entangled in a perverse situation. On a more historical level, the spectrum goes from political leaders like Nelson Mandela to whistleblowers today.

“There is no democratic project without an educational project”

Individuation, courage: your research intersects with the individual and the collective, psychoanalysis and political philosophy. How did you become a psychoanalyst?

I first started a psychoanalysis at a rather young age, around the age of 17. I did not think about becoming an analyst at all! Then my work as a teacher-researcher in political philosophy focused on the issue of dysfunctions, especially when I wrote Pretium doloris and The Pathologies of Democracy. Reflecting on the suffering at work and on the actions that sometimes accompany it, I have had to collaborate with occupational physicians and clinicians. I wanted to probe more directly the word of the individual. That’s how I became a psychoanalyst. I started my clinical activity in 2007 and have been receiving patients on a regular basis since 2009. I soon realized that the sessions were dedicated to a discourse about reality, society: work, globalization, terrorism, religions, etc. It was necessary to dig to find a discourse about parents, family.

What role does this activity play in your daily life?

I consult every late afternoons as well as weekends. It’s a decisive part of my work today, and it will come even deeper into my writing in the future. I have the feeling that the research I do in the morning or the teaching in the afternoon, in the evening, I hear it formulated in another way, more clinical, as if philosophy suddenly was endowed of a piece of land, while it usually does not. The democratic entropy we were speaking of, I measure its effects every day as a psychoanalyst: individuals feel discouraged, crushed by the rule of law that would be supposed to protect them. To become aware of it is already to extract oneself from it.

Is being a well-publicized philosopher influencing your work as a psychoanalyst?

This necessarily interferes, with very different results depending on the patients. With those who already know you, a phenomenon of transfer precedes you. But the transfer, the emotional projections that the analysed makes on the analyst, is almost magical … Even if this situation requires readjustments, it can be very efficient because it suddenly gives a kind of speed to the analysis, since all the work was done elsewhere. Conversely, there are those who do not know you outside the confessional field of the session and then rediscover you in a field of social and, there, the reactions are diverse. As we are living in an era in need of recognition, it seems to me rather to help; there is also a phenomenon of transfer – my psychoanalyst being recognized, I feel myself caught up in this sphere of recognition. There are misunderstandings, misapprehensions, but it does not really matter, they are always entry points into the analysis. This is very true for young patients under the age of 18, with whom it is always complicated because, if some come by themselves, others do it because their parents want it.

The end of The irreplaceable is devoted to education. Why ?

There is no democratic project without an educational project, both at family level and the social level. As intimate as it is, linked to the irreplaceable love that unites parents and children, education remains the major public enterprise. In this respect, the time of transmission is a very special time, a stretching time. The teachers are well aware of this: you only have two hours, you feel that it is ridiculous, but, in fact, you switch to another space-time which is a symbolic space. There is a click, the beginning of something; attention, empowerment, emancipation, critical awareness. It is in this space that the first fruits of individuation arise. But do not be deceived: it requires work, discipline. Discipline is not submission that transforms us into a sheep, into a link, into a follower: it is a skill, a technical gesture, a way of being, which makes us freer.

Cynthia Fleury in a few dates
1974: Birth in Paris.
2000: PhD in philosophy on the “metaphysics of the imagination”.
2005: Publishes Les Pathologies de la démocratie – the Pathologies of Democracy.
2010: Researcher at the National Museum of Natural History. Publishes La Fin du courage – The End of Courage.
2013: Member of Comité consultatif national d’éthique – Advisory board of the National Ethics Committee.
Wikipedia page (in French).

To read:
Les Irremplaçables, Gallimard, 218 p. €16,90.
La Fin du courage, Le Livre de poche, 192 p. €6,60.

Fascinating data analyses on start-ups by Sebastian Quintero

I just read about Sebastian Quintero’s data analyses on start-ups on his web site Towards Data Science. Thanks Martin H. 🙂 I was really fascinated about his original way of looking at them, their failure rate, the valuation prediction, their runway between rounds, and his Capital Concentration Index or Investor Cluster Score. You should read them.

Of course, it rang strong bells with all the data analyses I have done in the recent past 8see end of the post if you wish)

So as an appetizer to Quintero‘s work, here are a couple of figures taken from his site…

Dissecting startup failure rates by stage

Predicting a Startup Valuation with Data Science

How much runway should you target between financing rounds?

Introducing the Capital Concentration Index™

Where c is the percentage capital share held by the i-th startup, and N is the total number of startups in the defined set. In general, the CCI approaches zero when a sector consists of a large number of startups with relatively equal levels of capital, and reaches a maximum of 10,000 when a sector’s total invested capital is consolidated in a single company. The CCI increases both as the number of startups in the sector decreases and as the disparity in capital traction between those startups increases.

Introducing the Investor Cluster Score™ — a measure of the signal produced by a startup’s capitalization table

As of my own analysis, here are a couple of links…

My papers on arxiv:
– Are Biotechnology Startups Different? https://arxiv.org/abs/1805.12108
– Equity in Startups https://arxiv.org/abs/1711.00661
– Startups and Stanford University https://arxiv.org/abs/1711.00644

or on SSRN
– Age and Experience of High-tech Entrepreneurs http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2416888
– Serial Entrepreneurs: Are They Better? – A View from Stanford University Alumni http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2416888
– Start-Ups at EPFL. An Analysis of EPFL’s Spin-Offs and Its Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Over 30 Years https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3317131

Gandhi and Technology, according to Bertrand Jarrige

A second post about the excellent Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences after that one: Techno-critics according to François Jarrige. Jarrige surprises me by giving Gandhi‘s views on technology. Fascinating. I (in Fact Goodle translate was a great supporting tool…) translated his full account that you could read in French on pages 192-195.

No one better illustrates the ambivalence of the relationship to technology in the colonial world than Gandhi. If indeed he uses a simple traditional spindle to weave his clothes, he travels by train and uses a watch. The figure of Gandhi deserves attention because criticism of the machine occupies a central place in his speech and action. But if his successors and followers have venerated him for his contribution to India’s political independence, they have rarely taken seriously his criticism of the technical surge and his proposal to restore the local indigenous economy. For Gandhi (1869-1958), the “machine civilization” and the big industry created a daily and invisible slavery that impoverished entire sections of the population despite the myth of global abundance. While some reduce Gandhian thought to a set of frustrated and simplistic principles, others see it as a rich “moral economy”, distinct from both the liberal tradition and Marxism [1].

Born in 1869 in the state of Gujarat, while British rule over India grew and the railway network expanded, Gandhi went to England to study law in 1888, like hundreds of young upper caste Indians. After 1893, he went to South Africa, where he thrived as a lawyer and woke up to politics in contact with racial discrimination. He gradually developed a method of non-violent civil disobedience that will make his celebrity and organize the struggle of the Indian community. On his return to India, after 1915, he organized the protest against the taxes considered too high, and more generally against the discriminations and the colonial laws. During the inter-war period, as a leader of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi led a campaign to help the poor, to liberate Indian women, to encourage fraternity among communities of different religions or ethnicities, for an end of untouchability and discrimination of castes, and for the economic self-sufficiency of the nation, but especially for Swaraj – the independence of India with respect to any foreign domination.

In 1909, Gandhi wrote one of his rare theoretical texts in the form of a Socratic dialogue with a young Indian revolutionary. This text, Hind Swaraj, written in Gujarati before being translated into English, aims first at detaching Indian youth from the most violent fringes of the nationalist movement [2]. The book was banned until 1919. According to Gandhi, these young revolutionaries are indeed the victims of a blind veneration of technical progress and brutal force imported from the Western world. He is therefore gradually extending his political criticism of the industrial and technological civilization itself. Gandhian thought is based on a sharp criticism of Western modernity in all its forms. On the political front, he criticizes the State and defends the ideal of a non-violent democratic society, made up of federated villages and based on the call for voluntary simplicity. He denounces the notions of development and civilization, and the technical surge that founds them, as sources of inequality and of multiple perverse effects. According to Gandhi, “the machine allows a small minority to live on the exploitation of the masses […] indeed the force that moves this minority is not humanity or the love of the like, but envy and greed “. Political autonomy is therefore futile if it is not accompanied by a profound questioning of modern industrial civilization. “It would be foolish,” says Gandhi, “to say that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than an American Rockefeller,” and “we do not have to look forward to the growth of the manufacturing industry.” Gandhi defends the development of self-sufficient local crafts within the framework of village autonomy and a limitation of needs.

Gandhi belongs neither to the Indian neotraditionalist currents that consider the ancient Hindu civilization as intrinsically superior, nor to the camp of the modernizing nationalists seeking to copy the Western world to turn its weapons against the colonial order. He intends to define a third original way. Gandhian thought feeds on multiple sources. In a way, it belongs to the anti-modernist current that developed in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. He read William Morris and John Ruskin, and was marked by the anarchistic Christianity of Tolstoy [3]. His vision of the world feeds on the intellectual atmosphere of the end of the Victorian era and the ethical and aesthetic critique of the technical and industrial surge that was then developing. Gandhi is neither hostile to science nor anti-rationalist, as it is sometimes written. He first criticizes the way in which scientific discoveries and the use of reason are applied and put at the service of the powerful and exploitation. He criticizes the blind faith of the Western wolrd in material progress and the desire for power embodied in technical surge. He also wants to save England from its own demons. According to him, “mechanization has impoverished India”; it turns factory workers into “slaves”. It is not by “reproducing Manchester in India” that Indians will emancipate themselves from British rule. One of the particularly powerful technical bases of British rule is precisely the development of the railroad: “Without the railroads, the British could not have such a stranglehold on India. “Supposedly to liberate the Indian people, the rail is actually used primarily by the power as an effective tool of mesh and domination.” The railways have also increased the frequency of famines because, given the ease of transportation, people sell their grain and it is sent to the most expensive market” instead of being self-consumed or sold on the closest market. Gandhi tries to link his criticism of big industry and European technologies to his project of political emancipation. It shows that progress leads to a worsening of living conditions, that “civilization” permanently creates new needs that are impossible to satisfy, that it digs inequalities and immerses part of humanity in slavery. For him, this type of civilization is hopeless. The mechanization and globalization of trade is a disaster for India, the mills of Manchester having destroyed the craft industry and the world of Indian weavers: “The machinist civilization will not stop making victims. Its effects are deadly: people let themselves be attracted to it and burn themselves like butterflies in the flame of a candle. It breaks all ties with religion and in fact only derives tiny benefits from the world. [The machinist] Civilization flatters us to better drink our blood. When the effects of this civilization are fully known, we will realize that religious (traditional) superstition is harmless in comparison to that which nimbuses modern civilization.

Gandhian criticism of machinery intrigues much in the inter-war period. It is reflected in his economic program based on the defense of village industries as in its project to “de-mechanize the textile industry”, which appears immediately unrealistic and unrealizable. Moreover, Gandhi’s positions went from total opposition to European machines to a more nuanced criticism: in October 1924, to the question of a journalist, “Are you against all machines?” He replies: “How could I be … [I am] against indiscriminate craze for machines, and not machines as such”. He also rises against those who accuse him of wanting to “destroy all machines”: “My goal is not to destroy the machine but to impose limits on it”, that is to say to control its uses so that it does not affect the natural environments or the situation of the poorest. He ultimately develops a philosophy of limits and control of technological gigantism.

But this discourse provoked a lot of misunderstanding and was gradually erased as a reliquat of obscurantist tradition. The Socialists and with them Nehru himself in his autobiography published in 1936, lament that Gandhi “blessed the relics of the old order”. His analysis of industrial technology was soon marginalized to the independence of the country by the forced modernization project. But Gandhi’s figure also exerted considerable fascination far beyond the Indian peasantry. In the inter-war period, his criticism became a source of inspiration for social movements and thinkers from very different horizons, even as criticism of the “machine civilization” was growing in Europe.

[1] Kazuya Ishi, The socio-economic thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as an origin of alternative development, Review of Social Economy, vol. LIX, 2001, p. 198 ; Majid Rahnema and Jean Robert, La Puissance des pauvres, Actes Sud, Arles, 2008.
[2] Hind Swaraj, translated in English as Indian Home Rule, and later in French with title Leur Civilisation et notre délivrance, Denoël, Paris, 1957.
[3] Ramin Jahanbegloo, Gandhi. Aux sources de la non-violence, Thoreau, Ruskin, Tolstoï, Editions du Felin, Paris, 1998.

2019, the year of Unicorns IPO Filings: is Lyft the beginning of the end?

Lyft is the first Unicorn which published its S-1 document, i.e. its IPO filing. Is this good news or bad news? Lyft is impressive, two founders who were 22 and 23 when they co-founded their start-up 12 years ago have reached more than $2B in sales with a little less than 5’000 employees in 2018. This is the good part. The less good piece is it took the company more than $5B in equity investment and the reason is simple: Lyft has lost $900M in 2018, and more than $600M in both 2017 and 2016. This is more than $2B cumulative loss. I assume losses were pretty high in the previous years too. YOu can have a look at the cap. table I built from the S-1:

I read recently an article by Tim O’Reilly: The fundamental problem with Silicon Valley’s favorite growth strategy. O’Reilly has doubts about Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh’s claiming that Blitzscaling would be the secret of success for today’s technology businesses. “Imagine, for a moment, a world in which Uber and Lyft hadn’t been able to raise billions of dollars in a winner-takes-all race to dominate the online ride-hailing market. How might that market have developed differently?” I have the same doubts about this crazy strategy but who am I to say?…

Techno-critics according to François Jarrige

I write from time to time and perhaps even more often about this other fact of innovation and entrepreneurship (which remains my passion, positively), a face that is darker, more negative, a vision that is more critical of the impact of innovation on society. I read these days, in French, Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences (Technocritics – From the refusal of the machines to the challenge of the technosciences) by François Jarrige. It is a rich, harsh, demanding but exceptional book for all those interested in the subject.

Even if extremely critical at first sight, the book shows that the positive and negative aspects of progress have always developed in parallel. My closest reading of this work was probably that of Bernard Stiegler, In Disruption – How Not to Go Crazy? without forgetting the works of Libero Zuppiroli, such as The utopias of the 21st century. Thanks to him for mentioning this remarkable book.

Here is a full translation of a long and exciting passage on pages 87-88. It looks like it describes our world, it does describe an older one.

“If we were to characterize our time by a single epithet, we would not call it a heroic, religious, philosophical, or moral age; but the mechanical age, for that is what distinguishes it from all the others.” [1] Carlyle embodies the romantic denunciation of “mammonism” (that is, the religious worship of the god Silver), whose mechanical surge of his time is one of the manifestations. Why always strive, thanks to mechanics, to sell “at a lower price than all other nations until the end of the world”, why not “sell for equal price”, he asks? [2] He invites “ingenious men” to find a way to distribute products more equitably rather than always looking for ways to achieve them at the lowest cost: “A world of simple patented digesters will soon have nothing to eat: such a world will be extinguished and by the law of nature it must be extinguished.”

At the same time, Michelet, the great French romantic historian, discovered the gigantism of machinery during a trip to England in 1834. He also describes the ambivalence of the effects of machines. Impressed by the “beings of steel” who enslave “the being of blood and flesh”, he is nevertheless convinced that one will continue to prefer to the “uniform fabrications of the machines the various products which bear the imprint of the human personality”. If the machine is undeniably a “powerful agent of democratic progress” by “putting a host of useful objects within the reach of the poorest”, it also has its terrible setback: it creates a “miserable little people of men-machines that live half [and] that engender only for death “. [3]

The anxiety about machinery diminished in the Victorian era, with the expansion of the prosperity of the imperial period, the decline of workers’ violence, the rise of the political economy. However, it continues to arouse the fears of some moralists, such as John Stuart Mill, a complex radical thinker, a liberal fascinated by socialism and a feminist justifying imperialism. In his Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill proposes an inventory of the political economy of his time. He distances himself from economists who are overly optimistic about technical change, expresses reluctance about the beneficial effects of the division of labor and considers that the state must compensate for the detrimental effects of mechanization. But his criticism goes beyond these classic questions because John Stuart Mill proposes a theory of the “stationary state” that breaks with classical economics. He describes this “stationary state of capital and wealth” as “preferable to our present situation”, marked by the struggle of all against all. He sees it as a world shaped by “prudence” and “frugality,” in which society is composed of “a large and well-paid body of workers” and “few enormous fortunes”; this “stationary” world, where everyone would have enough to live, would leave room for solitude and contemplation “of the beauties and grandeur of nature”. In this world, the “industrial arts” would obviously not stop, but “instead of having no other goal than the acquisition of wealth, the improvements would reach their goal, which is the diminution of work. [4]

To be followed, maybe …

Sources:

[1] Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” Edinburgh Review vol. 49, 1829, p. 439-459
“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends.”
http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/carlyle/signs1.html

[2] Thomas Carlyle, “Past and Present” (1843), Cathédrales d’autrefois et usines d’aujourd’hui. Passé et présent, fr. transl. of Camille Bos, Editions of the Revue Blanche, Paris, 1920, p.289
I admire a Nation which fancies it will die if it do not undersell all other Nations, to the end of the world. Brothers, we will cease to undersell them; we will be content to equal-sell them; to be happy selling equally with them! I do not see the use of underselling them. A world of mere Patent-Digesters will soon have nothing to digest: such world ends, and by Law of Nature must end, in ‘over-population;’
P. 229-31, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26159/26159-h/26159-h.htm

[3] Jules Michelet, “Le peuple”. Flammarion. Paris, 1974 [1846]

[4] John Stuart Mill, “Principles of Political Economy,” fr. transl. Léon Roquet, Paris 1894 [1848] Pages 138-142.

Creativity according to Isaac Asimov

While travelling in the USA in January, I was mentioned a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity “How Do People Get New Ideas?”.


Isaac Asimov by Andy Friedman (Source: MIT Technology Review)

I have always been skeptical about how to teach creativity or even how to encourage it. I felt very much in agreement with what Asimov had written way back 60 years ago. Let me quote him:

– the method of generation [of ideas] is never clear even to the “generators” themselves,

– what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected,

– once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious,

– making the cross-connection requires a certain daring,

– a person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance; since (s)he occurs only rarely, (s)he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us,

– my feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required; the creative person is, in any case, continually working at it; his (her) mind is shuffling information at all times, even when (s)he is not conscious of it,

– the presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing; nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself,

– the optimum number of the group [i.e. such people just before] would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted.

This is quite fascinating: according to Asimov, creativity is an isolated act; making connections possible maybe helped by small groups, but even this, Asimov is not totally convinced of… I have often read interesting articles about creativity in art, science, technology and the idea that freedom to think combined with obsession to solve or do something might be much more critical than social interactions.