An Agilist at WIRED25, Part 1

Image: Author at WIRED25 Festival

Agilists may not realize that WIRED magazine started with its own manifesto, written by one of its founders, Louis Rossetto. And at the WIRED25 Festival and Summit – a four-day celebration of a quarter century of journalism on tech, culture, politics and more – the ideas behind both manifestos emerged. This event had a retrospective-like feeling to it, and I wondered how those who were at the genesis of our technological revolution might perceive the current state of affairs. The Internet, as I recall, came about with abundant optimism, but in the last five years or so, things seem to have gotten darker. The list of issues is mind-numbing: Internet bullying; large-scale security breaches; user data manipulation by foreign governments; spying on citizenry; opaque algorithms; and the echo chamber of tribalism fueled in part by social media. I wanted to share my thoughts as a consumer, citizen, geek, long-time subscriber to WIRED, and an Agilist on the topic of “How is ‘Being Agile’ showing up in tech center of the world?”

In Part 1 of this three-part series, I’ll cover the genesis of the “revolution” and how big tech companies are dealing with some of the social issues they’ve been challenged with. In Part II, we’ll cover the social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn, and how they’re using AI to help with online safety. Finally, in Part III, I’ll discuss the hard technology that we should be seeing coming out of the valley in the next few years. Think robots and flying cars – finally!

Part 1 – Big Tech & Techno-Optimism

The Manifesto

Though written in 1993, eight years before the Agile manifesto, the WIRED manifesto was only recently published on their website on their 25th anniversary. In it, they compare the coming technological revolution to a “Bengali Typhoon” akin to the “discovery of fire.” Back then it seemed hyperbolic; today it feels spot-on.

Both the WIRED Manifesto and the Agile Manifesto share a prescience that has enabled both to endure the passage of time. WIRED was the reporter on the front of the techno-optimism movement, a belief that technology will, in general, make our world better.

As I wandered into the WIRED offices at 8:00 a.m., I wondered which Silicon Valley would show up – the techno-optimists of the WIRED manifesto or those who felt that we had lost our way? Below I report a little on what some of the major players in our global economy had to say about the social impacts of technology.

Blue Origin & Amazon Take Us to Space

Image: Bezos (right) being interviewed by Steven Levy, WIRED editor at large

Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, a surprise guest to WIRED25, thrilled the audience with video of spacecraft manufacturer Blue Origin’s test flights. Bezos has a long view of the effort of helping humans populate space, and despite knowing that he probably won’t live long enough to see its full potential, he called space flight his top priority. When asked about the recently won Air Force contract, Bezos was unapologetic, stating, “If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the DoD, this country is in trouble. This country is a gem… it’s a great country, and it needs to be defended.”

When talking about Blue Origin, which he founded in 2000, Bezos wanted not to be the “guy who populates space” but to create an ecosystem similar to what gave rise to the Internet itself, where two guys in a dorm room could create a half trillion dollar company in less than two decades, à la Facebook. Right now, space is too expensive for startups and Bezos wants to change that. So, in a way, Bezos wants to bring the same Agile and Lean Startup forces to colonizing space as we have with technology, mostly through his reusable rocket technology.

Google Cautions Against AI-Powered Weaponry

Steven Levy also interviewed Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, and had a similar question about military contracts such as Project Jedi and Project Maven. He answered evenly, saying, “We deeply respect what [the military] does to protect our country … and we are working with them on a set of projects….” He went on to state that Google looks for the projects that they’re qualified for. He did mention a level of caution around AI and weaponry, saying, “The only area we are being more deliberate about is where AI gets used with autonomous weaponry.” He stated that the leadership listens to many inputs, including the employees, and senior researchers in the field of Artificial Intelligence.

Pichai indicated that AI has enormous possibilities, especially in conjunction with human intelligence. He referred to a recent study on detecting breast cancer, stating that, “AI working with pathologists together outperform either pathologists doing it alone or AI doing it alone.”

Microsoft’s Inclusive Designs

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella addressed a broad range of topics, from the marketplace to social issues. He referred to social networking companies as “two-sided markets” where two distinct user groups provide each other with network benefits, but that also involve “middle men” of the platform. For example, Facebook’s platform is the middle “man” between two user groups that are wanting to connect, from which they benefit: “Microsoft’s bundling of software package years ago look like child’s play when compared to what’s happening today.” However, when asked if government regulation should be brought to those companies, he claimed that really what is needed is more competition, saying, “it’s really competitiveness and innovation that changes [markets].”

When the conversation turned to accessibility, Microsoft brought out their Chief Accessibly Officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, who is deaf. The three of them discussed at length the ways the company is leveraging technology for the blind and hearing impaired. “There are a billion people in the world that don’t fully participate in our economy or society because of some impairment. Now we put accessibility in the beginning of the design process.” Lay-Flurrie stated, “We have to design through the lens of humans, and by embracing the fact that disability is part of that, we’re gonna get better products….and it starts with hiring talent.” She added that they’ve started hiring people with autism not only to understand it better, but because these people, like everyone, have their own “mad skills.”

This conversation brought Design Thinking to my mind. It was clear that in Microsoft’s product lifecycle they’ve added an often overlooked voice into the process – those of the disabled – and by doing that have achieved a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

Image: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie.

Summary

From the very beginning of the WIRED25 Festival, it was clear to me that despite its celebratory tone, this was not an event for tech leaders to sell or brag. The line of questions WIRED editors asked were tough and forced industry leaders to thoughtfully reflect on the state of their company and its social impact. It was clear to me that they were caught up in the very “Bengali typhoon” that they helped create.

As an agilist, I appreciated this honest retrospection in front of the world. Who knows what good this could lead to? I saw these big companies, who usually struggle with agility, working hard on maintaining a flexibility towards product development and stakeholder management. As I look back at the event, I see a lot of evidence supporting complexity science, particularly the Cynefin framework, created by David Snowden, which many agilist are familiar with. Many times, the interviewers and their guests referred to how complex things became, and complexity science gives us tools to address the problems raised. Agilists working in highly complex product spaces might do well to add the Cynefin framework and other complexity science disciplines to their practice.

In Part II, we’ll see how the big social network leaders such as Twitter and LinkedIn answered to these same tough questions and what lessons we Agilists might glean from their responses.

Learn more about the WIRED25 Festival here. All photos were taken by the author (Joe Fecarotta).