“You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole” — Johann Gottlieb Fichte (German Philosopher 1762–1814)
The Butterfly Effect
The Butterfly Effect is the theory where one small change in the starting condition of an event can have a monumental effect on the outcome of such an event.
The term was coined by Edward Lorenz and is derived from the metaphorical example of the details of a tornado being influenced by minor effects of the flapping of wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.
Lorenz discovered the effect in 1961 when he was running a numerical computer model to redo a weather prediction. As a shortcut, he rounded off the initial condition as 0.506 instead of entering the full 0.506127 value. The result was a dramatically different weather scenario.
Interestingly, he did this on a computer.
The Four Pests, Bye-Bye Birdy
Mao Zedong, commonly known as Chairman Mao, was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which he ruled from 1949 until his death in 1976.
Mao introduced the “Four Pests” campaign in 1958. This campaign aimed to eradicate the pests deemed responsible for the transmission of pestilence and disease: the mosquitos responsible for malaria; the rodents that spread the plague; and the flies and sparrows, which ate grain seed and fruit.
As with any tinkering or change there comes a consequence.
The whole of China waged war against the sparrows, nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed. Within a few years, sparrows were nearly extinct with unexpected and catastrophic consequences.
While the rationale was that killing the sparrows would mean there would be more grain and fruit for human consumption, it was overlooked that the bulk of their diet came from insects. A particular favourite of the sparrow was the locust. With no natural predator to tame the locust population, the locusts soared. A plague of locusts wreaked havoc on the Chinese vegetation.
This new imbalance led to mass deforestation and the widespread use of pesticides to kill the locusts. Mao eventually called off the sparrow witch hunt and reintroduced the population. By that stage, the damage had been done and the well-intended interference fuelled the raging Great Chinese Famine.
Cannabis is often grown in attic spaces and use heated lamps to optimise growing conditions.
During snowfalls in Europe, the heated rooftops are exposed as snow does not stick. Rooftops with no snow mean the cannabis growers were easily detected by the authorities.
This approach has resulted in successful raids by police, who also tweet the images of the houses to garner support from the community.
Such unforeseen circumstances often only happen once, they are black swans of sorts, but the result from just one can be disastrous for the protagonist.
Blind Decisions and the Great Unbundling
“If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will” — Steve Jobs
Business leaders are faced with an environment of exponential change and disruption. The rate of change is the result of several concurrent forces including big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cognitive computing underpinned by the increasing velocity of Moores Law and exponential change.
It is difficult for leaders to make decisions about their future when they are busy cleaning up their pasts and dealing with their present. The business as it is today should not be sacrificed for some punts on the future. However, informed punts are always a wise move.
I worked in traditional media in 2008 and developed the digital arm in the traditional media business. This business did considerably better than many competitors, the key ingredient (besides my excellent ex-colleagues) was empowerment by leadership. In stark contrast, many of my counterparts all over the globe were not listened to, ignored, became frustrated and left. As a result, digital decisions about the future of the companies were made by more seasoned, traditional media leaders. Once the digital chicken littles left the nest, there was no one protecting the digital hatchlings of the future. Digital advertising was bundled in with traditional advertising as a sweetener to close the deal and they repackaged the bundle as solution sales. This meant there was little value placed on the digital inventory.
Another blind decision took place when newspapers opened up their paywalls to both social media platforms and Google crawlers. While this was a source of traffic for the newspapers and at that time, a significant one, it also meant the content was pooled side by side with every other newspaper in the world. It commoditised content and placed premium content beside average content and dragged many users down to the lowest common denominator.
In doing so they unbundled the newspaper. Now instead of consumers buying whole newspapers and all the newspaper sections, now not only did they just look at the categories they liked, they only looked for the topics they liked. The newspaper was atomised and so was the potential for digital revenue.
The relationship with the reader now remained with the middleman or the aggregator.
The revenue from such content being available on Global platforms was paltry, but in the absence of the digital guardians, the traditional salespeople never saw any value in digital and so it came to pass, there was no value. In such a model, there is always one huge winner, in the long tail, it is the person who earns from every touchpoint on the tail, the aggregator wins big, while “the aggregated” win minutely.
An alternative “flap of the butterfly wing” would have been an alliance by all newspapers to ringfence their content behind paywalls and if Google and Facebook wanted to access the content (via crawlers or link sharing), they would have to pay the publisher and not the other way around. Such alliance can be hard to agree when it comes to competitors, they can even be hard to agree within a (siloed) organisation.
“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.” — John Wooden
We saw a similar blind and flippant decision in the music industry. Steve Jobs and his team in Apple convinced music executives to hand over their libraries to Apple’s iTunes. It would mean they would at least earn something from their content and Apple could contribute to cleaning up digital piracy. Executives figured something was better than nothing at all and despite many digital “chicken littles” they signed up.
In doing so they unbundled the album. Now instead of consumers buying whole albums of artists they liked, now they just bought the songs they liked. The album was atomised, just like the content of the newspaper.
Today, we see both the music and media industries grapple with the sins of the fathers, many of those who made blind decisions have since moved on or retired or otherwise, but the industry is left to face a difficult and uncertain future.
The Butterfl-AI Effect
“When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer
We, humans, are intensely curious, it is one of the beautiful things about how we are wired. When you think about the fields of science, big data and artificial intelligence, the people working in these fields all share the trait of curiosity.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was credited with being one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. When quizzed over why they built the bomb he answered as we see above.
Technically sweet challenges are the mecca for the intensely curious. Do I think Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook had a sinister plan to hoard the data of the world? No. I do believe the curious engineers employed by Facebook (hired for that very reason of being both capable and curious) keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible. When we do this there are often consequences, both good and bad.
We are experiencing unprecedented exponential technological growth. Moore’s Law (the doubling of computer power every two years) is giving us unforeseen capability. Many people say Siri, Alexa, Self-driving cars are not very good and will never penetrate society. Many others say economic singularity, Universal Basic Income, dystopian futures with monumental gaps between the extremely rich and the rest of us are the thing of science fiction.
William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” This is the case with artificial intelligence, machine learning and mass automation. As I will discuss with Martin Ford, the author of ‘ The Rise of the Robots’ in 2 weeks, a jobless future may very well await us and the decisions we make today will hugely affect that future.
On this week’s innovation show I speak to the excellent authors of ‘Soonish — Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything’ Dr Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. We discuss the unforeseen consequences of decisions that we make today. Kelly highlights during our chat that what concerned her most during her research of the book was that the people working on these world-changing technologies were NOT AT ALL thinking about the effect of those technologies.
This is where governments need to address the serious issues facing humanity. This is where we need to celebrate regulators such as Margrethe Vestager, the politician who fought for data protection in Europe.
Vestager’s work may just have been the butterfly wing flap that has put the Facebook Cambridge Analytica Tornado in the Global Spotlight.
I am a supporter of innovation, pushing the boundaries and advancing humanity, but I also see the necessity for regulation and strategic foresight because I am also a supporter of humankind.
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EP 97: Soonish Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything
Space Elevators, Asteroid Mining, Buckets of programmable matter, à la carte physical features and printable houses. We are joined by authors of ‘Soonish’, Dr Kelly and Zach Weinersmith.
In this action-packed show we talk about:
Bucket of stuff
Robots v humans
3D Print houses
Crisper cast 9
Made to order looks for your kids
J Craig Venter
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Find out more about Kelly and Zach here: