Over the Edge of the Technology Cliff

In the latter half of the twentieth century, two of the highest-flying tech firms were Wang Laboratories, manufacturer of word processors, and Research in Motion (RIM), a Canadian company that produced the famed Blackberry, which took the world of cell phones and electronic email by storm. It’s instructive to look at the timeline of these two companies, both in terms of technology and revenues, to see how things can go very badly very quickly for a company operating in a fast-changing environment.

Lessons From the Biggest Air Disaster

On March 27, 1977 the greatest airline disaster in history took place at Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Two 747 aircrafts, KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736, collided in fog. The crash killed 583 people, with just 61 survivors. The accident has been analyzed in depth and the conclusion is that it was caused by a cascade of errors in both communication and human nature.

Why Companies Need to Fail

During the second half of the twentieth century, if you’d asked anyone who was the world’s leading photo-imaging company they would have looked at you like you’d just dropped in from outer space. The answer to that question was so obvious that to even ask the question marked one as a cultural illiterate. Anyone who even faintly understood the term “photo imaging” would have instantly replied, “Kodak, of course.” And indeed it was that obvious. There were no contenders within sight even for second place. Kodak was it. And almost everyone would have imagined that the Soviet Union would collapse before Kodak. But times change, both for companies and for countries. And by 2012 the USSR was but a distant memory—and Kodak was in the bankruptcy courts on its way to oblivion. Perhaps it’s not accidental that the reasons why both the USSR and Kodak collapsed are about the same. So as the story of this chapter is business, not geopolitics, let’s look at Kodak, not the Kremlin.

Business Resilience

In the mid 1860s, mining engineer Fredrik Idestam established two ground wood pulp mills on the Nokianvirta River near Tampere, Finland giving rise to the name of the firm we all know today as Nokia. How that company trans- formed itself from a wood pulp company producing paper products to what was up until a few years ago the world’s largest cell phone manufacturing firm is a circuitous tale. This story is a fascinating account of how alert management can shift the focus of an entire organization in time with changes in the outside world so as to more effectively deploy available resources. At one time or another, Nokia proceeded from the production of paper to producing rubberized cables for telephone and electrical firms, as well as bicycle tires, and rubber boots. In the mid-twentieth century, Nokia expanded its repertoire to include consumer electronics by manufacturing electricity generation machinery, personal computers, and communication equipment. In 1992, the firm decided to abandon consumer electronics and focus solely on the rapidly growing telecommunication sector. This decision sowed the seeds of Nokia’s early dominance of the cell phone business when the company used its expertise to develop the GSM technology, which was later adopted as a de facto standard for mobile telephony in the 1990s. It’s estimated that by 2008 worldwide GSM connections were growing at a rate of over one million per day.

The Strange World of Texas Politics

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills . . . critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education . . . which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the students’ fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

2012 Platform, Republican Party of Texas

Complexity Gaps Lead to Inequality

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced the “end of history” in his essay of the same name published in 1989. In that article, Fukuyama argued that communistic social and economic principles collapsed along with the Soviet Union thus leading to a victory for liberal-democratic capitalism in their decades-long battle. What many people missed in Fukuyama’s essay was the part in which he wondered whether citizens in the West would proceed to lose moral and spiritual purpose now that the Cold War had ended the East- West ideological conflict.

Crisis of the Middle Class

One of the most talked-about films of 2014 was Richard Linklater’s epic Boyhood, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the maturing of a young man in twenty-first-century America. While the film covers over 4,000 days of the growing-up of the film’s star, Mason Evans, Jr., the actual filming took just 39 days of shooting. Linklater describes his film as an “epic of the intimate,” which is very descriptive as we see the hero deal with various life trials that a young man confronts in early twenty-first-century America.

Social Mood and Complexity Overload

On the night of November 12, 1993 at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Royce Gracie was the last man standing in an eight-man martial arts tour- nament, which is now known as “The Beginning.” These fights were more like a street brawl with no rules, other than no biting and no eye-gouging. This tournament was televised on pay-TV, and served to introduce the new phenomenon of “ultimate fighting,” which turns out to have a huge world- wide following, as evidenced that by 2011 the Ultimate Fighting Cham- pionship (UFC) was estimated to be worth around $2 billion by Forbes magazine. Commentators have noted that the fascination with this form of combat dates back to ancient Greek and Roman gladiators who fought in the Roman Colosseum and elsewhere for the entertainment of spectators. It would appear that over the last several millennia people have not lost the urge to see violent combat between two humans engaged in a battle to the death. These ultimate fights serve as extreme examples of both complexity mismatches and social mood bias at the level of individual interaction. Let’s see why.

Drivers of social change

At a random moment in time, the generic behavior of any social system is to be in a trending pattern. In other words, if you ask how will “things” (e.g., the GDP of an economy, the financial market averages, the political climate) look tomorrow, the answer is that they will be just a bit better or a bit worse than today, depend- ing on whether the trend at the moment is moving up or down. This is a large part of what makes trend-following so appealing: it’s easy and it’s almost always right—except when it isn’t! Those moments when it isn’t are rare (infinitesimally small in the set of all time points, actually) and the event is usually surprising within the context of the situation in which the question about the future arises. These special moments when the current trend is rolling over from one trend to another are the critical points of the process. And if that rolling over involves great social damage in terms of lives lost, dollars spent, and/or existential angst, we call the transition from the current trend to the new one an X-event. In the natural sciences, especially physics, such a transition is often associated with a “flip” from one qualitatively different type of structure or form of behavior to another, as with the phase transition from water to ice or to steam.

It came from outer space

TIME: 65 million years ago.
PLACE: What is now the Yucatan Peninsula in eastern Mexico.
EVENT: The crash of an asteroid 20 kilometers across.
EFFECT: The end of the dinosaurs and most other life forms on Earth at the time.

Suppose you were a lumbering triceratops. What would your walnut-sized brain have registered when this fiery crash occurred? Answer: Basically, almost nothing beyond an unbelievably intense light in the sky before you were instantaneously reduced to a heap of ashes, or even obliterated entirely if you happened to be in the impact zone. Here’s the scenario.

Self-infanticide

Gödel did something very clever. He found a solution of Einstein’s field equations in which the world lines circled back on themselves. This means that if you were traveling along a world line you would eventually encounter yourself as a baby. Suppose you kill yourself as a baby. Would you still be alive? It would be disturbing if you were both alive and dead. Unlike quantum mechanics, Einstein’s theory does not address ambiguity explicitly. The great challenge of modern physics is to unite the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. This has not yet been done.

The Uncertainty Principle: When one plus one is measurably not two

Experiments were performed in the early twentieth century that
indicated that small objects like electrons were particles if certain experiments were done, but were waves if other experiments were done. The statement, “This electron is a particle.” can be both true and false. This is a failure of logic of the kind that Kurt Gödel was concerned with. However, this example goes beyond the parlor games of mathematicians. This failure of logic can be measured and occurs in nature. As we will see, this logical failure, is crucial for the formation of life.