2010


18
Nov 10

My Talk at the House of Commons

I’m currently in the middle of an extremely interesting trip called Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, which Sherri Coutou and Reid Hoffman have organized for several years. it’s a fantastic trip so far, and I’ll write more about it, but wanted to share this.

Yesterday we were invited to the House of Commons here in London, and after a short speech by the Speaker of the House of Commons, 5 of us participated in a panel on the impact of digital technology on the future of democracies. About 100 people attended, including several MPs and members of the House of Lords, plus people involved in running the government and figuring out what to do with technology.

It was moderated by Jon Drori (fantastic job, and fantastic guy), and the Silicon Valley folks who participated were: Reid Hoffman, Megan Smith, Joi Ito, Nancy Lublin and myself. Each of the 5 of us started by giving a 5 minute ‘provocation’ to consider, then we ran it as a more traditional panel.

I’ll write more soon; for now, my provocation follows. Would love to hear what you think. 🙂

As I started preparing my remarks, I knew that I wanted to talk, in the main, about how technology can make our democracies better. But here, in the heart of British government, it’s impossible for me not to think about a couple of British authors and imaginers of future dystopias: George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

With these 2 especially, it seems a particular talent of the British to imagine horrible dysfunctional futures. Orwell in his 1984, of course, with nightmares of totalitarian control and surveillance, and oppressive government imposed on unwilling citizens. Huxley, by contrast, in Brave New World, painted a completely different picture: a citizenry of sheep happily gorging themselves on the trivial, on entertainment — with no Orwellian Ministry of Information needed at all.

In a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, an American named Neil Postman figured out nearly 30 years ago that what we were going to get wasn’t Orwell’s world at all, but rather a version of Huxley’s. And while the British seem to be adept at imagining dystopias, I have to say that we Americans seem to be pretty handy at creating them. In the US now, we clearly live in Huxley’s world: news has become entertainment; political discourse, when not an oxymoron, tends to be shallow. So many of the institutions and processes that have served us well for hundreds of years are breaking down.

Much of this is due to the nature of digital technology and the Internet, allowing massive amounts of new conversation, of news without context. The thing that digital technology is best at is closing gaps: in time, in space, in relevance — and that has put real stress on our institutions. Technology is not neutral — it makes many things easier, but also many things more difficult. There are winners and losers.

Clay Shirky, writing on the massive dislocations occurring today in the newspaper industry wrote: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in place.”

And things do feel broken today, in many ways — the forces of dystopia seem to be on the rise.
But even so, there is a lot — A LOT — to be optimistic about. The hints of a positive future show all around us. The seeds of utopia are in the ground, so to speak.

So clearly there are real opportunities here, shaped by the natural affordances of Internet and digital technology.

What we know from the work we’ve done at Mozilla on Firefox and other open source projects, is that the way we organize, the technology we use, and the customs we support — what Tim O’Reilly has called “architectures of participation” — matter greatly. Architectures of participation, like technologies themselves, aren’t neutral. Projects like Wikipedia and Mozilla Firefox have architectures that are designed to bring in collaborators from everywhere, at every level. We have very serious contributors who spend most of their time working on the core. We have nearly 100 teams working on localizing Firefox into their own language. We have entrepreneurs building companies based on extensions to the browser. We have tens of thousands of people who test our browser each night and report issues. And we have hundreds of millions of users. We’ve built architectures of participation to get people engaged in as many ways as we can.

So what’s the future utopia that’s possible with digital technology? Ideally what we get — what we create — is a system where citizens are engaged, where they feel valued and connected with their governments and each other. Where our leaders are accountable — and desire to be accountable. It’s a future where it’s just as easy to help your neighborhood as it is to help your country or your planet.
To get there, we’ll need to architect with a few key principles in mind:

  1. Transparency – where most of today’s efforts are, and critical to how we start
  2. Clarity – flip side of scale – not the same as transparency — often, transparency of information can overwhelm — without a narrative, without intent, it’s very difficult to understand the implications of the transparency itself
  3. Engagement – get everyone more educated and informed and contributing – get subject experts involved
  4. Scale – must consider neighborhood government to municipal to national to transnational
  5. Heterogeneity – life is increasingly cross-border, in all senses – trans-national – trans-company – mixture of public and private life

So my provocation turns out to be more of an exhortation, a call to action. As technologists and entrepreneurs and leaders of government, it’s our opportunity — and our responsibility — to imagine and articulate good, positive architectures of government, to engage with our colleagues and neighbors and coworkers and constituents to envision robust models for the future, in the context of ubiquitous, cheap, immediate information technology — and then to get on with making the world the way we want it.


13
Nov 10

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Once I saw the title, how could I not get this book, honestly? And the ray guns on the cover sealed the deal, if the title hadn’t.

I think, ultimately, that the book itself didn’t totally live up to the title, but was pretty good anyway. It’s ostensibly about time travel, but really about a man and his relationship with his father, in understanding his father better.

Pretty meta, really, but good if you’re into that type of thing.


13
Nov 10

CS198

I’ve made countless decisions in my career since first arriving at Stanford in 1989, but one of the top 5 specific decisions that I’ve made was to become a section leader for introductory Computer Science classes at Stanford my sophomore year. I literally can’t think of a single choice that’s had farther reaching implications in my career. Some background is in order, I think.

The introductory CS classes at Stanford are called CS106A, CS106B, and CS106X — they’re taught by lecturers (who, in my experience, were far & away the most committed, thoughtful, caring, accessible, and, ultimately, impactful teachers at Stanford) and the class size was often large, anywhere from about 50 students up to 300 or so. The lecturers were supported by one TA, and a staff of “section leaders” — each an undergrad who was responsible for 6-10 students, would lead a weekly section, grade programs and generally give close attention to their group.

In any given quarter, there would be about 50 of these section leaders, as well as 2 “CS198 Coordinators” — these 2 were generally grad students, and they selected and hired new section leaders through an interview process and also taught a 1 quarter class on how to teach.  It’s a great program, with a fantastic focus on peer teaching, and I think resulted in great results not only for the students taking the 106 courses, but also for the section leaders themselves.

I was turned down the first time I applied to be a section leader, but wanted to do it badly enough that I applied a 2nd time and was accepted. And eventually I was turned down twice when I applied to be coordinator, being accepted the third time around as a grad student. And that was probably my best experience at Stanford — well worth the feeling of getting turned down the first two times.

I think we knew, even then, that the program was incredible — that it selected amazing people and helped them develop in amazing ways — helped them learn CS at a deeper level, of course, but it was also shockingly effective at helping us all learn to teach and communicate — to really balance out the technical aspects of our education.

It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can really see how incredible the program has been. The reason I’m writing about it now is that a few weeks ago we had the first ever reunion in the 40 year history of the program, and it was just awesome. (You can read Eric’s blog post and see his pics, too.) The make up of the attendees was a bit like a who’s who list of Silicon Valley: startup founders, new CS professors, VPs of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, CEOs, VCs, chief architects, researchers, and many others. The density and scope of achievement is really hard to describe, honestly. This program has had as much impact on Silicon Valley as any single program that I know of.

More personally, it reminded me of how many lasting, close friends that I developed there — most of my best friends went through the program at some point, and it was so good to see so many of them together.

I trust we won’t wait another 40 years to have the 2nd reunion of the program — I’m looking forward to having another one, soon.


13
Nov 10

Endings & Beginnings

In the next few weeks, we’re planning to move from the house we’ve lived in for 7 years in Sunnyvale, into a neighborhood in Palo Alto, motivated by a couple of public school options that we’re really interested in as SPL approaches kindergarten age. So I was cleaning up the garage some this morning in preparation for that, and found myself thinking a lot about the endings and beginnings that are going on in our lives right now.

This week was essentially my last as CEO of Mozilla, and Gary’s first week in that role. Today is the last day for the Green Gators U6 soccer team — SPL’s as a player and mine as the coach — not as momentous, maybe, but a meaningful milestone — I think SPL and I each learned some things about each other and ourselves. And moving from the first house that Kathy & I bought together, have lived in for 7 years — the only house and neighborhood that SPL has ever known — it’s funny that I can still remember the day we brought him home, and how tiny he looked in his crib the first time.

And for me personally, this is the longest I’ve ever lived in one house in my life. Since Dad was in the Air Force, we moved around a lot, living most places only 3 or 4 years. I’ve lived in the Bay Area more or less continuously since I first arrived at Stanford in 1989 (except for 18 months in Austin and internships in Colorado Springs and Dallas), and this is without question my home. Our house in Sunnyvale is only about a third of that time overall, but a lot has happened here.

For other milestones, Kathy & I both turn 40 in the coming months, too. Hard to really believe that.

So a few endings this month, and a few beginnings. They’re happy remembrances — we’ve been lucky to have wonderful neighbors, great teammates, fantastic co-workers, not to mention all our other friends, relatives, mentors.

And I’m not too worried about the endings that are coming — I’ve been fortunate to be able to maintain the important relationships in my life beyond the boundaries of a job or an apartment or a project, and figure that’ll continue. It’s hard work to maintain them — but it’s these relationships that transcend boundaries of space, time, interest, convenience — that really make up our lives, isn’t it? They give meaning to our lives with history and context, but also in creating a shared sense we have of tomorrow, and what comes next.

So onward, but with memories and some nostalgia, but also with connections.


13
Nov 10

Room, by Emma Donoghue

This book is on a lot of “best of the year” lists, for good reason. While it reminds me a bit of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, in that it’s narrated from the point of view of a 5 year old, it’s an amazingly original work. It took me a while to get through the first 100 pages or so — once I did, though, I pretty much read the rest of the book in one gulp.

It’s a tough, emotional, book to read — in a lot of ways, it’s a sort of mother’s analogue to McCarthy’s The Road, in that it explores some fundamentals of the relationships between a mother and her son. The context is alternately sweet and horrifying, but a very smart book, in an original voice, and well worth the read.