Leave the echo chamber, burst the bubble Melanie Baker February 19, 2015 Columns, Communitech, Featured, M-Theory When you’re a scientist who’s been doing research or has made a breakthrough, you have other scientists review your work. If things look good, you publish your work, and others in your field review it from many angles. Basically going over it with a fine-tooth comb to see if you missed anything or screwed something up. Not until your work has passed peer review is it accepted as Science and unleashed on the world. This is an oversimplification, but you get the idea. This analysis, criticism, and “Yeah, but what about…?” questioning provides rigour to ensure that mistakes or oversights are corrected, results weren’t faked, and that should your work go public, it’s not going to kill anyone. (It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than nothing.) Sure, it can be career destroying and cutthroat, but the results aren’t all bad. In tech, we don’t really have this, and it’s to our detriment. Yeah, we talk about ideas (perhaps with a FriendDA, perhaps without), MVPs, funding, forecasting, business plans, etc. But tech people tend to spend their days with . . . tech people. Sometimes 20-hour days. Resulting in the famous echo chamber. The result is a whole pile of people who may well have similar education to you, similar work experience. They live in the same sphere, want similar things, and live similarly to how you do. Guess what? You end up with groupthink. This can be mildly problematic. Or a complete and utter horror show. Additionally, tech communities all over tend to embody the relentless optimism of American Silicon Valley culture. You can do it! (Even if you shouldn’t.) This, combined with the echo chamber, amplifies it. Telling someone their baby is ugly – really ugly – doesn’t tend to happen enough. Unless you’re on Dragon’s Den and it’s for ratings. Even when it is about money, and the potential waste of it, investors are part of the sphere (and echo chamber) as well. “Normal” becomes an averaging out of what you see all the time. If you see 50 terrible ideas and three okay ideas, the 50 are going to start to seem average, and the three okay ideas are going to seem like friggin’ genius. Also – and this might seem weird to the fiscally responsible type – investors expect to lose money. While they’d love it if they made mad bank on every investment, it just doesn’t work that way. Their expectations are worse than for baseball player performance. In tech, if one in 10 of your investments pays off, you’re doing pretty well. That’s millions of dollars down the toilet. And expected to go swirling down. Yes, some of that money paid salaries and such, but it wasn’t sustainable. In tech, we also fetishize creation. Note I’m not using “innovation” or “invention” or “hacking” here. Cuz let’s face it, most new stuff isn’t actually an innovation or an invention or a disruption or pick your buzzword. However: creation. Making things. Sometimes it’s a new thing; sometimes it’s a big improvement on an old thing; sometimes it’s re-arranging existing things. Like X for Y – Twitter for cats or Snapchat for dentists or what have you. The fetishization comes from equating what people do with what or who they are. In the same way we tend to assume good-looking people have more positive traits, like being nicer or smarter or whatnot. Those involved in creating in tech are held up as a different breed from the general populace. Better just because they’re doing it. Work that’s harder, more important, more rewarding. Requiring bigger sacrifices, chasing bigger payoffs. Yeah, on occasion, sure. And hey, I’m all about creating jobs and whatnot, but how often do these sacrifices, or payoffs, actually make the world a better place? Of course, on the occasions when creating does pay off, it tends to mean it gets bought by some big company, and more often than not, the creation is dismantled or mangled and no longer improving anyone’s work or life. This article is a really interesting read on that subject, and touches on the inherent biases, sexism, and lack of respect for those who aren’t makers, per se, but who make creation, and a lot more, possible. All of this is a way of wondering how we can make this process better. How more seats at the table, so to speak, can be made available. How more emperors can be called out for strutting around starkers. And how truly creative (in multiple senses of the word) works can get their due – attention, resources, funding, etc. – especially when their chief benefit is to those who can’t make anyone rich. Entities like Kickstarter may have educational value here, or a hint of it. There, if you don’t get funded, too bad. Of course, to get funded you have to offer something people want. Or convince them they want it. (Yes, you’re way ahead of the game if you happen to be or have an established brand already.) But the thing is, Kickstarter is open to everyone, not just the tech sphere, for example. (Aside from needing a computer and Internet access and a credit card, etc., but you know what I mean.) And a successful Kickstarter campaign is going to have a lot of backers, which tends to mean a lot of different backers. Different backgrounds, perspectives, needs, financial situations, educational levels, political views, etc. That means all of those people agreed that Your Thing was a good idea. Not half a dozen of your buddies. Not a handful of VCs. Not your mom. Possibly over 190,000 different people. Crowdfunding is one potential way to bring scientific rigour to tech. To say, “Yeah, but what about…?” before we hand over our money, our data, our privacy, etc. Where are other opportunities? Is code review a form of scientific rigour in tech? It can be. But by the time there’s code, the idea’s already been vetted and approved, at least at some level. True, sometimes you’re Steve Jobs and people would just ask for faster horses if you bothered to get their input. (Yes, I know Henry Ford didn’t bring us the iPhone and Steve Jobs didn’t bring us the Model T.) And yes, true that sometimes the incremental failures are invaluable learning experiences and become your yellow brick road to the truly great ideas and stellar leadership. Edison’s 10,000 ways that won’t work and whatnot. But some ideas are just stupid. And some people are just arrogant and have tunnel vision. But they get chance after chance because they know some guys. And that wastes millions of dollars and millions of person-hours on projects that are going to crash and burn. Resources that could be put towards better vetted ideas and great talent to develop them. Overburdening tech with procedural bureaucracy isn’t the way. Ruining careers for a bad idea or some poor decisions isn’t the way. But raising $20 million to develop Uber for goldfish means there’s a bubble going on, and it may be my overly conservative Canadianness talking, but I’d rather a slower, smarter, more sustainable growth trajectory than fireworks and flameouts. Photo: Bubble on St. Augustine grass by Jay Morgan is licensed under CC BY 2.0. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech.