Tag Archives: geek

5 reasons why money can’t buy progress

I am not, despite some recent discussions, opposed to money. I like money. Who doesn’t like money? But there is danger sometimes of seeing money as an absolute, something than universally incentivises, shapes behaviour, and supports progress. Money isn’t the root of all evil. But neither is it the root of all progress. It fact often it may be a relatively weak incentive to progress…and sometimes a disincentive.

Anyway, here are 5 reasons why money can’t buy progress. And since I can’t set my blog to music, I am just going to suggest you play this for a few seconds to get you in the right mood.

1) Cash rewards can be a disincentive to performance

“For simple, straightforward tasks, rewards work. And the bigger the incentive, the more they work.

When a task gets more complicated, and requires conceptual, creative thinking (like genuinely progressive tasks) autonomy, mastery and purpose are all much better incentives than money.

…And when the profit motive is detached from the purpose motive. Bad things happen.”

2. A Fine is a Price (not a disincentive)

Often we try to use money, or more often the removal of money, to drive better behaviour. More often the opposite happens, because paying money is an excuse for acting like a jerk.

Clay Shirky spoke on this subject last week at the MIT Media Lab, describing how schools have experimented with enforcing fines for parents who are late picking up their kids. Rather than reducing late pick-ups, this fine increased them – because suddenly it was about the cost, not the basic lack of humanity towards teachers who have been cooped up with your kids all day and want to get on with their lives. And then even when the fines are removed, people continue to act like jerks.

If you want a more visceral example, spend some time in New York restaurants. People’s blood will boil with rage if you fail to leave at least an 18.5% tip for your waiter. But it is also entirely normal for people to not say thank you when waiters bring them things. Because a fine is a price.

Clay Shirky, auditioning for inclusion in watch people jump

3. The balance sheet is a scorecard, not a business plan

Every great company that I have come into contact with has a clear vision or mission that comes before everyone else. For example Google exist to organize the world’s information (and not be evil.) And IKEA have the wonderfully Swedish vision of ‘Creating a Better Life for the Many People.’

These vision-led companies are of course insanely huge and insanely profitable. But they didn’t start with the balance sheet. Their healthy balance sheets simply reflect that they are well-run companies with a powerful economic vision. Any company that starts its business planning with the balance sheet will mainly go backwards. Because the balance sheet is a scorecard not a business plan (copyright, the smartest guy I know.)

The IK in IKEA - amazing at making money, more passionate about getting well-designed furniture in the homes of low-middle income families

4. The design constraint of ultra-affordability

It is so easy to be stupid when you have lots of money. When you have no money, you have no choice but to be very smart.

Now there is no denying that some degree of resource is essential to invention, and quite a lot of resource is often essential for true innovation – because to go really big, you need some support.

But it is no accident that Larry and Sergey started in a garage, using Lego as a key building component. Or, on the flip-side, that the fat cats of tech are being gobbled up by geeks locked in basements. Starting with the assumption that money is not going to solve the problem makes you focus on what is really going to solves the problem. ie, you.

Dammit...got to buy a garage...

5. The poor man has the best tunes

Quality of creative output is inversely proportional to relative wealth status. Or…it is in your interest to keep your favourite bands small, because once they get rich they won’t be able to make good music any more.

There is a big caveat here, which is that the creative process requires freedom, basic tools etc. And DOUBLE caveat – once you get back to the beginning of this century, this is a pattern that obviously falls over. It is fair to say you had to be rich to be Proust. Or Tolstoy. Or that you had to be at least able to support a lifestyle at a royal or ecclesiastical Court to make any music or drama in Europe for many centuries. Almost too many caveats to make this meaningful…

BUT there is certainly a trend in pop culture of character learnt in adversity, great work done as adversity turns into popularity, and then decadence as wealth sets in. Because extreme wealth is distracting, isolating, and destructive of motivation. Which is one of the reasons you can go from the intensity of the band at the top of this post to the artist at the bottom in a little over a decade…



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geek dictator, or hippie engineer?

we live in a world currently driven by two very different models of innovation – what you could describe as the Apple model, or the Google model. both are incredibly suited, in different ways, for the demands of a technologically convergent digital world.

apple or google? eventually, you may have to choose a side...?

the Apple model is orchestrated brilliantly by steve jobs. its cornerstone is fiercely centralised creativity, symbolised by the keynote speech. it has a small number of incredibly desirable, globally uniform, visually iconic products, able to command a value far beyond their basic utility. through the potential scale of modern distribution, marketing and advocacy, Apple has been able to turn a very small number of beautifully designed objects into incredible business value.

what will he say? what will he say? oh, a slightly smaller one? wow, where do I queue?

the Google model may have been founded by the wizardry of Larry and Sergei, but its driving force of innovation is entirely decentralised. across the world, crews of very differently skilled programmers and engineers collaborate to develop and optimise its products and services. every day, you almost certainly participate in optimising Google’s product for them, just by searching for stuff. through the potential scale of modern diffusion of control, data, and participation, Google has been able to turn the behaviour of millions of information seekers into incredible business value.

it is more difficult to find a compelling image of google...i could probably have done better than this

people like google. but people love apple. partly this is because apple products are shiny, tactile, look good in your handbag. but i think it is partly because people are still instinctively drawn towards the drama of steve jobs and the keynote, rather than hundreds of visionary engineers around the world collaborating, cross-fertilising and optimising to create forms of information management that are transforming the world.

applying this to another field – there are two things this week that have, more than anything else, been occupying the more interesting areas of my mind.

firstly, i have spent a lot of time thinking about ‘the social network’ – a film that, thanks to having a small child and busy evenings, i actually haven’t yet seen – but that i have spent lots of time talking about (particularly with francesca of Jumptank), reading about and thinking about. at the heart of it sits the enigmatic, semi-horrifying, era-defining character of ‘Zuck’ – the latest in a long line of socially awkward geeks who have used unusual technical expertise and incredibly singular vision of the world to create totally new social and economic models.

no matter what your brain tells you, you want to be them. you may even already think you are.

secondly, i have spent a fair amount of time thinking about MIT. not least because of trishan’s triumphant progress in the 100k with the wonderful http://www.mycareapps.com, but also because i am fascinated by their Media Lab institution and the way that they work. what fascinates me about the Media Lab is seeing the collision of totally different skill sets – textile makers with electronics experts, doctors with technologists – collaborating to create the future. and the totally intrinsic, unselfish joy that motivates the people who work there.

MIT media lab. when i went there, it really made me sad to leave.

again, the world stands in shock and awe at the feet of the Zuck, inventor of ‘the Facebook’. at the same time, the incredible, world-changing efforts of the design-focused collaborators of MIT and the world’s top scientists and engineers remain in relative obscurity.

ok, well, that’s entertainment. films about unique individuals tend to be more dramatic than films about successfully operating groups. there are, lest we forget ‘no status of committees’ (apart from rodin’s burghers of calais.) though i challenge you to find a statue of a living, happy, well-adjusted individual.

a statue of a committee. the exception that proves the rule.

where is this taking me? well, a summary of my recent experiences are beginning to suggest to me that these analogies we apply to ourselves, thinking about ourselves as characters in movies, or as potentially subjects of monumental sculpture, are part of a rather unhealthy perspective on health, success and happiness.

to our stock of romantic anti-heroes, the gangsters and con-men, we have added a new type – the geek dictator, the strange spawn of the culture of alienation and flowering of personal computing in the 1980s. these are the new collossi that bestride the world. in our minds (and theirs) they are indivisible from superheroes…weaklings with a dark side, ruling the world by night.

zuck, in his own mind, probably

and yet at the same time, what is also happening around us is the endless proliferation of incredible works of science, engineering and culture created by a different kind of creator…one that fuses a somewhat hippy ethic with a collaboration and fusion of disciplines that is very much 21st century.

we might not want to see movies about these guys, but when we are thinking about the things that we want to create and the things that we want to achieve, these guys might provide a better example for us to internalise and follow. the concept of embracing and getting the most out of differences between people, of leading by giving up power, of interacting rather than delegating or obeying, may lead us not only to happier lives, but to more successful ones, filled with great discoveries and innovation.

in this context, the psychology of power politics gives way to an instinct towards partnership. towards the enthusiastic non-ownership of ideas. and that is when great stuff like organising the world’s information, or creating technology that transforms the world’s ability to access healthcare, or even just creating great, sustainable businesses, really comes to life.


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