Tag Archives: data

3 unexpected ways crime drives innovation

Innovation means doing things differently to do them better. That means breaking rules and conventions. And not all rules are of the ‘wear a tie to work’ variety.

When breaking rules, always be sure to make the typefaces off-horizontal

In order to make things work better, society as a whole needs people to test and break the ‘big’ rules too. These people are criminals.

99% of criminality is of course not socially productive. But, either by intent, or by the response it provokes, it does form an essential function in helping society to innovate and improve. Here are some unlikely examples:

1. Exposing flaws in outdated systems.

When you think of a criminal, one of the stereotpyes that first leaps to mind is one that was formed in the midwest of the US in the early 1930s. Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker Gang – a flurry of iconic figures that all derived from a very specific time and place.

This spectacular outburst of criminality derived from two seminal technological innovations – the creation of cost-accessible machine guns and cars.

But what it exposed very rapidly was the Achilles heel of the American police system – the disunity between states. As huge as the United States is, the addition of the car enabled criminals to travel between 9 different Midwestern states, and thus 9 different legal systems, within a couple of hours. Once you got over the state line, you were fine.

Have car, will travel. 6 states in 2 years. 6 legal systems.

This had some negative consequences of course – primarily the militarisation of the FBI and subsequently the police. But the real innovation that they drove, and which J Edgar Hoover used their notoriety to champion, was a centralisation of shared criminal justice data. Which was the first great data project that began to make the United States a more unified society under law.

So think about criminals as like the ultimate QA testers of a civilised society.

2. Pioneering in the grey areas of the economy.

Sometimes, the rules simply aren’t very clear, because the dynamics of society, information and the economy are changing far quicker than the ability of legal processes to catch up. Particularly in areas relating to media and technology.

For example, from the moment of the invention of the internet, the entire principle of music ownership and copyright were effectively a Wild West…which the massed ranks of copyright lawyers, record labels and music publishers had little or no interest in exploring. Then came Napster (invented, of course by Justin Timberlake).

Whatever you think, or thought of Napster (and I am sure a few Metallica fans out there thought it was a bad thing) there is little doubt that they rapidly accelerated a wonderful burst of innovation in the music and content business. And without the Napsters, or Pirate Bays, or other people who by simply not caring about the law define themselves as criminals, it is difficult to make progress.

This need for legal flexibility in the area of content, media and technology continues to flummox us. They need to be answered at some point, but rigid initiatives like SOPA are not the answer. And to even see where the lines should be drawn, you have to allow pioneers to colour in the grey areas.

3. Destroying ‘holy cow’ legacies of the past.

Lest we forget, the legal standards of the present have not always been reflected throughout history – the law is evolutionary, not absolute. Nor is it always ‘progressive’ – it frequently oscillates between extremes and loops back on itself. This can lead to some surprising results, and even very trivial crimes can have significant effects.

For a spectacular example, we can look at one of the most frequently asked historian’s questions: why did the French Revolution occur. Everyone agrees that literature played an important role. Traditionally, people thought the seminal text was this:

It turns out that the flood of cheap political pornography in 1780s Paris, depicting Marie Antoinette, Fersen and Louis XIV in unflattering sexual poses, may have contributed somewhat more to encouraging people to overcome their religious scruples towards the position of the monarchy, and get behind regime change.

Absurdly, given the neo-censorship of the web, this is the closest I can get to finding a political cartoon that was considered only mildly risque at the turn of the 19th century

Fairly trivial crimes, driven by disrespect and entertainment, can have highly constructive outcomes – when they challenge unjustifiable authorities that are holding society back.

This seems like a fertile area. Any other thoughts on the relationship between crime and innovation?

POSTSCRIPT:

Elsewhere in the history of illicit entertainment, see the development of the internet and the explosion of personal photography/video equipment…and if you don’t believe me, check out how they sold the first Polaroids:

and digital cameras:

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dreaming of the historical potential of 100 years of google…

if you’ve never read ‘fooled by randomness’ by nassim nicholas taleb, it’s definitely worth a look. this is what it looks like in paperback – though not my coffee which is inexplicably covered in coffee. well, coffee spillage was always going to be happen to someone, so i shouldn’t feel upset that it was me.

i can’t quite agree with Malcolm Gladwell that ‘it is to conventional Wall Street wisdom approximately what Martin Luther’s 95 these were to the Catholic Church.’ in fact i suspect in saying this that gladwell is making exactly the mistake scoped out in the book – mistaking a short term blip in intellectual discourse for a a long term see change in a thinking paradigm. but it is rather good.

it is a defiantly unscientific book in many ways, which appeals to me, but also (once you get past layer after layer of egotism on the part of its author) rather a refreshing and human one. in particular, it is salve to the wounds created by those peers or competitors that you see as being slightly more successful than you – don’t worry, says taleb, they are almost certainly just lucky, and if you hang around for a bit, you’ll see them fall flat on their faces (as long as you haven’t got too cocky yourself in the meantime, in which case it’ll be your face you should be worried about.)

the bit that i have been particularly enjoying is around the dangers of having too clear an idea of what is going on at the moment. he counsels traders to try to track their investments on a weekly rather than a daily basis, and laughs with scorn at those who check share prices of wirless devices. i think i will join him, it is a satisfying thing to do. the item below is a trap for fools of randomness.

of course it immediate occurred to me that this mistake is prevalent in all of the worlds in which i am most active – in marketing, in media, in politics and indeed in music and movies. we’ve all got to start checking the results a bit less often, otherwise we will never really know what is going on.

this is difficult of course. i have lost count of the time i have spent talking about social monitoring, instantaneous course-correction, live planning etcetra and nauseam. and if i have an intensely functional problem to solve, like getting as many people as possible into a cinema or onto a website within a couple of days, then this stuff is all pretty useful.

but if you really want to get a perspective on the health of a brand or company, or the quality of a piece of music or film, or the long term political prospects of a party and individual, a bit of patience clearly works wonders – otherwise you run the risk of becoming obsessed with burst of tweets or opinion polls or test screenings that really just reflect the consistent background noise created by randomness.

this takes me back to my post from yesterday (see below) and back to my friend Edmund Burke – a political opposite but a philosophical exemplar for me. if you really want to work out what the best thing is to do, don’t just ask lots of people right now, or analyse the patterns of behavioural data from the last couple of weeks – give it some time, and try to analyse what is really happening based on decent, long terms trends. we will then become less obsessed with trigger events and revolutions, and wiser in our understanding of evolution, and what might happen next. thanks edmund.

what becomes really exciting is when we begin to think at what this deluge of instantaneous data, thus far momentous in scope and detail, but fickle in terms of its trending and caught up in patterns of self-reference, could mean for understanding of human nature, if we start giving layering on to our approach for it a respect for the collective wisdom of time.

the mind boggles at what a historian would be able to do with 100 years of twitter or search data. i hope these sources are jealously preserved, and that someone remembers to look at them and ask interesting questions…once we get over the excitement of discovering the most tweeted subject of the week.

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The internet election that wasn’t, the digital democracy that might be

So, the UK election is finally over. Until the next one at least, which could be pretty soon.

This was supposed to be the ‘internet election’, whatever that means. It’s certainly pretty tricky to argue that the massive surge of Cleggmania amongst the Twitterati turned into anything very substantial. Or to disagree that if the media had any really significant role to play in this election, it was in the relentless long build of support for Tories, primarily in the press, undercut at the last moment by the arrival of its big daddy, live TV, which seemed to serve up a sample to people of what it would be like to have David Cameron on TV all day every day, which no-one really seemed to go far.

As an entertainment spectacle however, there is no doubt that the internet (preferably alongside a mobile phone) was the best way to watch this election. Endlessly entertaining pastiches of advertising, palpable excitement during live events from interaction in social environments – I even found out David Cameron was going to see the Queen just a few minutes ago on Twitter. Despite being in New York, I felt closer to this election than the last couple, and found myself talking to people about politics that I would never have spoken to before…which despite what some teachers of etiquette might say, is a good thing.

But whilst the Sun may have failed to win the election, Twitter and Facebook certainly can’t claim to have won the war either. But to me, what is much more interesting is to see whether, in this fragmented post election world, the value systems of a digital context generation will help to shape the peace.

Whatever exact form government takes is almost an irrelevance, taking the long view – some party or collection of parties will try to reduce the deficit without angering anyone, but the new government is hardly going to shape the ideological direction of the next two decades as 1997 did. What is inevitable however is that we will have to examine our system of beliefs and practices around government, and obviously this is overdue to say the least.

As part of this, a new generation will be coming to look at our existing systems of government. If they expect them to make sense, they should connect with their history. Virtually the establishing principle of British government is that nothing should ever make any sense, that it’s very stability relies on a system that flows, evolves and is patched up over time.

You may call this undemocratic (and surely, by any reasonable standard, it is) – but Edmund Burke, a strange but very intelligent conservative of the 19th Century would refer to it as a different form of democracy (though he would never have used that word, which would have been almost an insult in that period of history). He refers to the importance of institutions that have been build by many different people’s will – those of the past and those of the present. He said this in reaction to the Revolutionary thinkers of his contemporary France/USA such as Thomas Paine – who were much more of the ‘none of this makes any sense, let’s rethink it from base principles’ brand of political thinking. The path of British political reform, and particularly the development of its sense of voting rights, has tended to steer an even course between the anchor of tradition and the development of radical, a priori thinking based on a modern set of values. And now is clearly a time to re-triangulate once more.

But if we are re-triangulating, the new moving point becomes a re-revaluation of modern values – and if those values have a base anywhere, it is in the ethics of a digital-centred generation.

Waking up to the reality of their constitution, they are immediately astonished and disgusted by the logical insanity of a first past the post system, so distant from the wisdom of the crowds that has built the great online institutions like Wikipedia and Amazon.

They have turned up at a time of their own convenience to a community building that they didn’t know existed, and been deprived of their right to vote by their inability to get the right piece of paper, or to get into a little building in time – when every other decision in their life can be made wirelessly, any time, in any place.

They have had to wait for a week as a collection of white middle class men have secret, one to one meetings in secret, just as their real heroes and influencers put problems in the cloud for many hands to fix, transparently and collaboratively in public.

This group of people, this generation, need to act as the ‘radical anchor’ that helps to take politics to a different place right now. They need to engage, with scepticism but not cynicism, with this unique opportunity to change a system that is undeniably in need of intense surgery if it is not to suffer from perpetual disengagement.

They will not get everything they want, and neither should they – the Thomas Paine of today would no doubt subscribe to the theory of an always on, mobile-accessed, vote now system of referendum led government which I for one would not choose as a wise framework for government. We need a bit of Edmund Burke too. But it is surely time to apply some of the thought dedicated to building communication models, transactional models and technological models to one of the great eternal challenges – what is the ideal political model?

If the minds of the UK now engage with this challenge, this could turn  out to be a formative period in the next century of our government. And I hope that what we would form would be a political system that feels more rational, more open, more participate, and a lot more just than what we have at the moment.

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