September 07, 2014

Laptops and Looms II: The Californian Ideology

As I mentioned in my main Laptops and Looms II writeup, I'm writing up the four "things I've been pondering" in separate blog posts. This is the first one. See the main write up for links (once they're written) to the others. I don't have any firm conclusions to draw, these posts are part me-working-out-what-I-think and part starting points for further discussion (comments or, even better, trackbacks/links to other blog posts welcome).

My mindmap on the Californian Ideology

The picture above shows the mind-map I'd sketched out around this topic on the train over to the Peak District.

I guess a good starting point would be for me to try to define what I mean by "the Californian Ideology". It's a convenient shorthand term that I think I picked up from Dan Hon. It's definitely something he's been digging into in his newsletters (his round-up/recap centenary issue is a good starting point for some further reading).

It's the prevailing narrative in the tech startup world. Come up with idea; raise venture capital to fund you running at it; aim to disrupt some incumbent market, by finding new efficiencies enabled by smartphones and/or the Internet; either crash and burn when your funding runs out or, for the lucky few, achieve fame and fortune when you're the latest unbelievably-priced acquisition for Google or Facebook.

It's covered breathlessly by the media, and lauded by politicians from the Prime Minister down to local councillors looking for regeneration wins as the way the country is going to climb out of the great recession.

It's also just as likely to result in eye-rolling and knowing sighs when discussed by the less blinkered inhabitants of Tech City.

The problem isn't with people making a fortune building businesses, nor with them using digital technology and the Internet to do so.

The problem is that if that's the reward system then those of us who don't fit into that have a harder time succeeding with our ventures, and fewer people will take an alternate path, because they don't realise that the alternatives exist.

As Deb Chachra eloquently explains, these startups may be the Indicator Species of a wider problem.

I'm wondering if there's a European alternative to the Californian Ideology. One that's more equal and inclusive, more empathetic (to steal another of Dan Hon's threads (section 1.2)). Maybe one which has a less centralized architecture? One that looks at moonshots to solve some of society's bigger challenges, rather than finding "clever" hacks around regulation to provide a slightly smoother life to the already privileged smartphone-wielding classes.

Or if disruption is so prized, maybe Matt Jones is right and we need better imaginations which can improve upon (or disrupt) consumer capitalism as a way to organise the world.

What are the new myths we can build around a better world? Which companies, projects, individuals... are the indicator species of an improved society?

There are a few early signs of a different way. Not nearly enough success stories yet, but that's something I'm hoping this dialogue will help encourage.

There's Newspaper Club, I Can Make and I hope my efforts at MCQN Ltd will add to that in time. In his talk after mine at Laptops and Looms II, Paul Millar related the story of Fairphone, showing that it isn't necessarily about being anti-VC and against scale.

That's an important part of it for me, and something I'll return to when I write the blog post in this series on Scale. There's nothing wrong with keeping the company small and profitable and friendly, and in the discussion during my session Tom Armitage (IIRC) made the excellent point that tools like Kickstarter let people deliver smaller projects and then move on, in a way that would've required (and tied them to) formation of a company in the past. However, some of the problems demand a lot of solving and I'd like some of the successes to be huge as well.

Many of the things we want to do will require funding too. The risk with the venture capital route is that it ties you into an exit. If you're building a business to make difference to more than just your bank balance, as most techies working in startups believe they are, then your big moment of success can often turn out in retrospect to be the time when what you were building started to die. I've lived through that personally when we were acquired by Microsoft, and we've seen it happen to enough others now (although I guess Yahoo! has stopped acquiring people, right?) to stop falling for it.

At present the poster child for a better approach, at scale, is Government Digital Service. It's no surprise that there were enough attendees from GDS that we could joke that Laptops and Looms was a GDS off-site...

Their Design Principles are a good starting point for the right approach, coupled with their (and the loomerati's) mantra culled from Tim Berners-Lee's Olympic ceremony tweet that "this is for everyone".

Tell me your reckons.

Posted by Adrian at September 7, 2014 04:53 PM | TrackBack

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