Breaking Smart

Today, I am launching a new site: Breaking Smart. It is a seasonal binge-reading site (think Netflix binge-watching, but for blogs) devoted to big-picture analysis of technology trends. Starting with this first season, I plan to publish a complete season of essays once every 2 years. The inaugural season has 20 essays, amounting to a total of about 30,000 words. For those of you planning a lazy, slow August of vacationing, staycationing and catching up on reading, I hope Season 1 of Breaking Smart makes it onto your shortlist and propels you back to work in September with a fresh set of ideas about how the world works. I am also launching a new weekly email newsletter (in illustrated tweetstorm format!) that you can subscribe to on the site.

Season 1 explores the theme of “software eating the world.” Marc Andreessen, who coined the phrase in a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, and also helped me explore it through several in-depth discussions last year, has been kind enough to write an introduction.


Unlike my writing on ribbonfarm, which has an unabashedly insider tone (you either get what refactoring is or you don’t), I have consciously tried to make Breaking Smart accessible to a broad audience. Among the most fun parts of achieving a more accessible tone was working with artist Grace Witherell to come up with a bunch of great illustrations to accompany the text. The montage above, composed from a selection of the individual illustrations from this season, should give you a sense of the essays.

So head on over to to start reading. Or read the rest of this post first, for the backstory of how this site came to be, and details on how you can help it boldly go where no website has gone before.

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Stone-Soup for the Capitalist’s Soul

The fable of Stone Soup is probably my favorite piece of European folklore. In the Russian version, which I prefer, called Axe Porridge,  the story goes something like this:

A soldier returning from war stops at a village, hungry and tired. He knocks on the door of a rich, stingy Scrooge of a woman. In response to his request for food, she of course claims she has nothing. So the canny soldier asks her for just a pot and water, claiming he can make “axe porridge” out of an old axe-head he spots lying around. Intrigued the woman agrees.

You know how the rest of the story goes: the soldier quietly hustles a bunch of other ingredients — salt, carrots, oats — out of the old woman, under the guise of “improving the flavor” of the axe porridge. He does this one ingredient at a time, offering an evolving narrative on the progress of the porridge (“this is coming along great; now if only I had some oats to thicken it.”)

The result is some excellent porridge that they share, while applauding the idea of axe porridge together. The shared fiction that soup can be made out of an axe-head results in the fact of real porridge for all.

There are some deep insights into the psychology of wealth and the nature of progress in this fable, insights that are very relevant for our times.

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Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind

The story of neurasthenia or “invalidism” is a curious mid-nineteenth-century chapter in the story of the emancipation of women. As Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Bright-Sidedit was almost entirely a social phenomenon:

The largest demographic to suffer from neurasthenia or invalidism was middle-class women. Male prejudice barred them from higher education and the professions; industrialization was stripping away the productive tasks that had occupied women in the home, from sewing to soap-making. For many women, invalidism became a kind of alternative career. Days spent reclining in chaise longues, attended by doctors and family members and devoted to trying new medicines and medical regimens, substituted for masculine “striving” in the world.

What makes this curious, and rather ironic, is that invalidism was becoming widespread just as new possibilities were being opened up to women, through the slow substitution of fossil fuels for muscle power.

This was not a coincidence of course.

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Schumpeter’s Demon

For a while now, I’ve been dissatisfied with our shared mental models around the creative destruction being unleashed by the Internet.

On the one hand, we have coarse-grained and abstract models based on long-term historical cycles and precedents. This is the sort of thing I’ve explored quite a bit in previous posts. It involves careful analogies to previous technological revolutions. It involves debates around whether or not technological progress is stalling and whether a return to growth is possible.

On the other hand, we have detailed situational models, full of incomprehensible minutiae, that seem to develop around specific important decisions. An example is the  set of mental models that drove the “fiscal cliff” farce, which just played out in the US Congress.  Another is the set of mental models in evidence around the SOPA/PIPA debate last year.

The first kind of mental model is so large-scale in its concerns, it is effectively a fatalistic level of analysis. The other kind is ineffectually preoccupied with each immediate situation in turn. It quickly drives itself into a dead-end each time, and defaults to buy-more-time decisions.

I’ve thought of an allegory for understanding economic creative destruction, that I’ll call Schumpeter’s Demon. It just might be capable of informing meaningful action.

From Incomprehensible to Arbitrary

William James’ observation, “The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear” has long seemed to me a near-perfect definition of civilization. But it doesn’t get at the costs of this process. Which is why I was inspired, a while back, to make up my own no-free-lunch version of the aphorism: Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.

A lot of my recent thinking and writing (and coincidentally, consulting work) has revolved in one way or another around this idea. Last week, I figured out a pretty neat 2×2 that captures this notion of civilizational progress, and folds in a bunch of other interesting ideas that I am thinking about, in satisfying ways. Here you go:

The diagram may be hard for you to parse if you haven’t been following some of my recent writing. There are also ideas in there that I haven’t yet written up. The diagram maps to the aphorism from bottom-left to top-right, but via a path of wiggly process through the other two quadrants.

It’s going to take me another week or two to dig out from under my move and post a decently polished full-length post (thanks to guest bloggers for keeping things moving along in recent weeks), so lucky for you, this short post is all I have for you this week.  I have a lot more to say about the ideas in this 2×2, but I’ll save that for future posts.

If you really want more, here are the slides, and here’s the video, from my talk at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab last week. Warning: as with many of my recent talks, this is very much work-in-progress material, probably with lots of flaws and errors. I’ve sort of adopted a blogger-approach to speaking in recent years, where I release early and often. It’s a refreshing change from the more academic present-when-done style I operated in until a few years ago, but it does result in more bugginess.

Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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Economies of Scale, Economies of Scope

I’ve been trying hard over the last several weeks to wrestle a very tough idea to the ground: economies of variety. Yes, there is such a thing, and I don’t mean either the Starbucks menu of mass-customized combinatorial choices or some charming favela economy that has variety, but not economies of variety. Economies of variety are related to, but not the same thing as, the idea of superlinearity.

I’ll leave that subject for another post, when I beat the thing into some sort of submission, but the process of wrangling the idea has led me to a much deeper appreciation of the two existing economies — of scale and scope respectively — that characterized the industrial age. So this is a sort of prequel post. If a well-posed notion of “economies of variety” can be constructed, it will need to be really solidly built in order to punch in the same weight class as these two mature ideas. A business that achieves all three will be close to unbeatable by competing businesses that only manage one or two out of three.

Amazon is the first company that is getting dangerously close to 3/3. That should give you a hint about where I am going with the economies of variety idea. But let’s figure out scale and scope first.

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The Abundances of Ages

High culture organizes its world views using overarching frames: intellectual superstructures that serve as extrinsic conceptual coordinate systems.  “Globalization” and “Industrialization” are examples of such frames.

Popular culture on the other hand, tends to be driven by the most visible and drama in the immediate environment.  From the chaos of turbulent change, popular culture tends to pick out specific motifs around which to grow a world view. These motifs mostly arise from the economic abundances that drive that particular age.

In trying to compare and contrast the motifs of different ages, something interesting struck me: the motifs tend to cycle between material, object and cognitive motifs. The objects aren’t random objects, but ones created by the operation of technology. So iron is a material motif for the Iron Age, the steam engine is an object motif for the Industrial Age, and writing is a cognitive motif for the Bronze Age.  Here’s an approximate and speculative table of the motif-cycling I made up.

(I have endnotes for the less obvious table entries, which may need some explanation; and obviously the model is more speculative for ages for which contemporary written records are not available to us).

Why is this cycling important? Well, for all you futurists out there who are stuck in a mental rut asking yourself, what’s the next big thing? the next big thing is almost certainly not going to be a thing at all (object motif).  It’s going to be a material motif. So the right question is what’s the next new material? 

So answers like “3D printing” are wrong in a specific and interesting way. Let me explain.

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Realtechnik, Nausea and Technological Longing

The story of barbed wire is one of the most instructive ones in the history of technology.  The short version is this: barbed wire (developed between 1860 to 1873) helped close the American frontier, carved out the killing fields of World War I, and by spurring the development of the tank as a counter-weapon, created industrial-era land warfare. It also ended the age-old global conflict between pastoral nomads and settled agriculturalists (of animals, vegetables and minerals) and handed a decisive victory to the latter. Cowboys and Indians alike were on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence. Quite a record for a technology that had little deep science or engineering behind it.

Barbed wire is an example of a proximal-cause technology that eventually disturbed multiple human balances of powers, starting with the much-mythologized cowboys-versus-ranchers balance. When things finally stabilized, a new technological world order had emerged, organizing everything from butter to guns differently.  Barbed wire was not a disruptive innovation in the Clayton Christensen sense. It was something far bigger. Its introduction marked what Marshall McLuhan calledbreak boundary in technological evolution: a rapid, irreversible and wholesale undermining of a prevailing planet-wide technological equilibrium. So ironically, the ultimate boundary-maker of physical geography was a boundary breaker in technology history.

The story of barbed wire illustrates the core principle that I want to propose: an equilibrium in technological affairs is necessary for an equilibrium in political affairs. There is no possibility of a realpolitik equilibrium without a corresponding realtechnik equilibrium: a prevailing, delicately balanced configuration of technological forces across an entire connected political-economic-cultural space (which today is always the entire planet).

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Happily Almost Ever After: Towards a Romantic Account of Détente

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of détente. I am fairly certain it is going to play a big role in my next book, but I haven’t figured out the precise details.

A détente is a general easing of tensions within an adversarial relationship before underlying conflicts have been resolved (otherwise you would call it “peace”). I think of détente as a “happily almost ever after” narrative pattern. Unlike a truce though, a détente is a sort of indefinite cessation or slowing down of conflict without specific expectations of alternative approaches towards resolution, or specified time limits. You know a decisive drive towards an outcome will be resumed, but you don’t know when, why, how or where for sure. You just collectively agree that now is not the time or place.

I’ll sketch out in general terms why the concept is interesting, but I am going to wander quite a bit along the way and use this post as an excuse to philosophize about game theory and academic culture, and share an interesting anecdote. You’ve been warned.

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