"There is an almost sensual longing for communion with others who have a larger vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendships between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality almost impossible to describe ..." - Teilhard de Chardin
On a visit to Indiana in April, witnessing the bloom of purple allium and the elm trees through the window, I happened upon a New York Times op-ed piece that became the stepping-stone to why I returned to engage with the San Francisco Bay Area ecosystem, again:
"When [Peter] Thiel is talking about a “monopoly,” he isn’t talking about the illegal eliminate-your-rivals kind. He’s talking about doing something so creative that you establish a distinct market, niche and identity. . .
His lecture points to a provocative possibility: that the competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires.
Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows." - "The Creative Monopoly," New York Times, April 23, 2012
Today via Fred Wilson's blog, I was acquainted with Sep Kamvar, a professor at MIT Media Lab with an artistic sensibility, who wrote an essay on the principle of cyclicity. Cyclicity is another phrase for the ineffable philosophy I keep being drawn towards. Last week the closest phrase I could come up with was "generative ecosystem." And it's the generative and regenerative ecosystem aspect of Silicon Valley that drew me here, even though in other respects I feel like an odd man out. Sure, it's not in everyone's DNA, but it is here.
I'm on my laptop at Coupa Cafe, with its rustic, earthy beauty redolent of Latin America--high ceilings, hexagons in skylights, thick stone floors inlaid with colored mosaic, walls the color of blood oranges--and I read about the 26-year-old co-owner of Coupa Cafe, Jean Paul Coupal:
"[He] didn’t quite expect the Palo Alto cafe to become such a tech magnet. But he has encouraged it, adding a zippy 50 megabit WiFi network and encouraging people to camp out with their laptops. Since the beginning we wanted it to be a place where you aren’t kicked out,” Coupal says. “At a restaurant, they bring you the check and you feel you have to leave. We didn’t want that. We wanted people to feel at home.”"
From last week to this week I notice a new item, handcrafted* toffee, displayed at the counter (I'd spotted "Toffee Talk" at the downtown San Jose Farmer's Market the previous Friday and the samples I enjoyed were luscious). Coupal gives newly-seeded projects and ideas a chance to take root:
"There are many people and institutions in Silicon Valley willing to help new startups, including incubators, universities, angels, venture capital firms and big tech companies. But local small businesses like Coupa that are willing to give new startups a shot are another important part of this ecosystem." - "Coupa Cafe: Where Start-ups Meet, Work, and Test Products," Forbes, December 5, 2011
As I type this, a man to my left interrupts my absorption in blog-writing to ask if there are any extra power outlets by me.
At first I say, "No, there's not," since it is true.
Then, I find myself double-checking my laptop battery. It's at 100%, so I offer him the power outlet I'd been using as his laptop is drained. It doesn't always work out this way, yet it's not usual for the ones who thrive. We tend to think of 'power places' like NYC and Silicon Valley as spots that abide by the law of the jungle--it's either you or me, we must take from and be predatory for our mere survival--yet do jungles actually thrive through cut-throat means? Tachi Kiuchi and Bill Shireman, in, What We Learned in the Rainforest: Business Lessons from Nature, say:
"Rainforest species are not solitary organisms fighting myriad others to be the last to survive in a hostile environment. They all depend on each other to collectively build an ecosystem, each defining an exclusive niche vital to and dependent on the other niches that border and overlap it.
...the most valuable resources of the rainforest [are] not the trees or other physical resources, but the relationships, the complex array of [symbiotic] designs [among the species.]
"This cooperation is not conscious, as human cooperation sometimes is; it is a consequence of specialization and interdependency. As they specialize, living things find it to their advantage to cooperate. Whether they like it or not the parts come together, in cooperation, as wholes.
Ecosystems are not isolated entities with impenetrable borders. Every ecosystem is nested within, borders on, or overlaps with other systems.
A verge is a rich mixture of ecosystems that happens where two distinct forms meet with each other and begin to intermix. Verges are places of conflict, but also of positive change. They bring together diverse systems and set the stage either for their integration or for their destruction.
Our economy, too, is on a verge. "
Even after The Creative Monopoly op-ed instigated pondering a move, I wasn't certain (I'd sworn I'd never return to Silicon Valley--primarily as it couldn't fulfill my desire to express myself beside the cerebral facet of myself). And it seemed absurd to risk returning to the Bay Area ecosystem on a drained battery (i.e. shoestring budget). A few days after The Creative Monopoly omen, Oakland, CA resident, publisher, and author of Starting Your Book and MotherWealth, Naomi Rose e-mails me:
That's what cinched it for me. Something I wrote in 2006, "Slow Food, Slow Sex, Slow Marketing" while I still lived in the Bay Area, spoke to someone else there. At the time of writing, I truly felt like an outlier (and it was only a matter of time before I left in January 2008 to find somewhere that my way of being might be welcomed as a contribution to the whole).
"There is an old Zen story about a man riding a horse, galloping frantically down a path. His friend, who is sitting by the side of the road, calls out "Where are you going?" The man replies: "I don't know. Ask the horse!"
When we build our tools, we often depend on metrics to guide our development. We keep graphs of unique visitors and pageviews and watch them closely. This keeps us honest. It's hard to convince anybody that we're building a useful tool if our metrics show that nobody is using it.
But we must take care when we use metrics. Metrics can be like the horse in the old Zen story. Once we decide on them, they have a habit of setting the agenda. As the old adage goes, what gets measured gets managed.
The standard metric for a country's economic welfare is GDP. I find this strange. If the government decided to give millions of dollars to the country's richest people so that they can buy yachts from one another, that would increase GDP. So would clearcutting our national forests to build strip malls, outsourcing the raising of our children, and incarcerating large swaths of our poor.
If we temper the language a bit, we might find that this description is not so far from reality.
My point is that metrics shape behavior. Joseph Stiglitz describes this mechanism nicely: "What we gather our information about, and how we describe success, affects what we strive for." Political leaders who want to grow the economy, he says, will focus policies on things that increase GDP, even when GDP does not correlate with societal well-being.
Which brings me to my second point: all metrics leave something out. Often, they leave the most important things out.
In 2007, Stanford offered a course called "CS377W: Creating Engaging Facebook Apps". The course assignment was to build a Facebook application that, according to the course website, would "focus on solving a problem for a broad audience." It was an intensively metrics-driven class, and the key metric was user numbers. By the metrics, the results were astonishing: in the course of the 10-week term, the apps collectively reached 16 million users.
The flipside was that the applications themselves were underwhelming. Most of them allowed users to do things like rank the attractiveness of their friends, send virtual hugs and have virtual pillow fights. The substance of the applications reflected what the metric left out. If it were possible to measure the value of a user's attention, or how enriching an application is to her life, the course projects would likely have been quite different. But sometimes, the important things can't be measured.
It is useful, therefore, to have missions to balance our metrics. Of course, each tool should have its own mission. But if I were to suggest one mission for all tools, it might be this:
Every tool should nourish the things upon which it depends.
We see this principle at varying levels in some of our tools today. I call them cyclical tools. The iPhone empowers the developer ecosystem that helps drive its adoption. A bike strengthens the person who pedals it. Open-source software educates its potential contributors. A hallmark of cyclical tools is that they create open loops: the bike strengthens its rider to do things other than just pedal the bike.
Cyclical tools are like trees, whose falling leaves fertilize the soil in which they grow.
At the top of the stack, all tools depend on nature and human nature. They depend on the sun, trees, minerals, and fossil fuels to provide their raw materials and energy. They depend on the creativity of builders to give them form. And they depend on the attention of their users, without which they would languish.
An ecosystem of cyclical tools would therefore nourish nature and empower people. A fully cyclical software application may, for example, use peer-to-peer data centers powered by its users, consisting of biodegradable, fertilizing microprocessors. It would be open-source and provide APIs to empower the creativity of builders, and a clean design and useful purpose that cultivates the concentration of its users.
If some of this sounds like science fiction, so did manned lunar vehicles in 1950, or self-driving cars in 2000. We have a tendency to achieve what we focus on.
It’s difficult to build cyclical tools because the alternative is so tempting. Cars are faster than bikes. FishVille reaches more people than Moby Dick. At first, cyclical tools appear to be lower-power, slower-growth, and more expensive than extractive tools.
But you can’t measure the impact of tools on their own. You must measure them by the ecosystems that they co-create."
* "Catherine is adamant that her toffee remain an artisanal, handmade confection and continues to prepare every batch herself." - Toffee Talk website
ART CREDITS: Henri Rousseau's The Dream, Exotic Landscape with Playing Monkeys, and Two Monkeys in the Jungle.