Resiliency, Risk, and a Good Compass: Tools for the Coming Chaos

June 10, 2013

As new technologies disrupt old orders, we as a society may find it useful to adopt some of the agile methodologies from the tech start-up world. But this can't mean that we let people fail the way most start-ups do.

From a Wired interview with Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab, on how to cope with the endlessly accelerating upheavals brought about by technological development:

  1. Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure.
  2. You pull instead of push. That means you pull the resources from the network as you need them, as opposed to centrally stocking them and controlling them.
  3. You want to take risk instead of focusing on safety.
  4. You want to focus on the system instead of objects.
  5. You want to have good compasses not maps.
  6. You want to work on practice instead of theory. Because sometimes you don’t know why it works, but what is important is that it is working, not that you have some theory around it.
  7. It’s disobedience instead of compliance. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told. Too much of school is about obedience; we should really be celebrating disobedience.
  8. It’s the crowd instead of experts.
  9. It’s a focus on learning instead of education.

Bruce Sterling cites these maxims in [his closing keynote at this year’s SXSW] and thinks they’re great, but that they’re also making things worse. They intensify the disruption, the churn. “A world that did those things would be 100 times more disturbed than it is now.” (44:56 in the audio) This is the quandary of coping: how do you know when it’s necessary? Fight what you can’t change and you’re wasting your time, but choose to cope with what you could have changed and you’re accepting defeat. In the Serenity Prayer, it’s that “wisdom to know the difference” that’s the rub.

For my part, I suspect this technologically-induced disruption is here to say. It’s been happening for as long as our species has existed–hell, it’s pretty much our defining characteristic–all that’s new is the velocity. And in my work as a programmer where technological disruption is a fact of life, I find many of Ito’s maxims useful, specifically the parts about building flexible systems designed to bounce back from failure. But that’s just me with my relatively few liabilities and a job in technology. Were I a law school student buried beneath $150,000 in loans, I’d tell Ito exactly where to stick his “focus on learning instead of education.” I imagine a fifty-something auto worker with two kids and a mortgage would tell him to do likewise with his “take risk instead of focusing on safety.”

In light of this, it’s important to keep in mind that even if we can’t fight the disruption1, we as a society still get to decide how its benefits and sacrifices will be distributed.

  1. And remember here that inevitability is just a rhetorical strategy, and a weak one at that. Anyone trying to convince you that something is inevitable has probably just given up on convincing you that it’s a good idea.