june 2, 2022


Jonny White

Something old, something new. 

The old: Let’s study our customers. Let’s practice safe financial planning. Let’s use OKRs. 

The new: Let’s tell anybody who takes interest what we’re doing and see if they have better ideas. 

The trouble is this: Mistrust of institutions abounds. And that mistrust isn’t crazy. Everyone who runs something has a bottom line that they’re looking out for. 

  • Tech companies want your data. 
  • The news feeds you whatever keeps you watching. 
  • Charities seek mindshare and donations. 
  • Commodities producers want to reduce costs. 
  • Politicians change their story to be popular.

It’s not crazy to notice that these bottom lines can sometimes lead to decisions that aren’t good for you. But then again, the whole system is not broken. Decade-by-decade and century-by-century, things are going pretty well. Poverty is rapidly declining. We’re finding more efficient sources of energy. People are living longer and getting smarter. Things go wrong and it’s not all forward progress, but it’s hard to find someone today who would be living in the 1900s or 1800s or 1700s, especially if they’ve attended to history, slavery, plagues, or sanitation. So our systems of democracy, capitalism, education, and social support are—as far as this guy can understand them—doing some good. And those systems include those bottom lines we discussed above. So what could one little tech company try, to be a little better than average and not break anything? 

Here’s how I see it. The mistrustful institutions go wrong when the decision maker thinks, "Sometimes I'm clever, people are dumb, here's how I'll use that."

So I prefer the opposite, "Sometimes I'm dumb, people are clever, here's how I'll use that."

If I adopt this assumption, one particular behavior flips. Rather than hide my operations, plans, and ideas so that people can’t catch me, I benefit from sharing them so that people can help me. 

We’ve seen this work wonders in the dev space, wherein people share a lot of code because—well—because it improves everything for everyone, including the person who wrote the code. There’s a humility to that. You could hoard you code if you wanted, but that just makes it harder for people to see it and improve upon what you’re trying to achieve. It’s true—to an extent—in academia, too, and that’s the best part of academia: benefitting from and building upon other people’s thoughts.

Why can’t it work for a tech company? Why would we want to hide anything? Why can’t we just tell our clients, our research partners, and the public what we’re doing and see who shows up with what ideas?

I suppose the obvious answer is competition, but my stance is that there's so much good to be done here that I'm not afraid of someone branching off us.

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