March Magic Memories: Tim O’Reilly
Tim O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc., a company that delivers online learning, publishes books, runs conferences, urges companies to create more value than they capture, and tries to change the world by spreading and amplifying the knowledge of innovators. He has a history of convening conversations that reshape the computer industry. In 1998, he organized the meeting where the term “open source software” was agreed on, and helped the business world understand its importance. In 2004, with the Web 2.0 Summit, he defined how “Web 2.0” represented not only the resurgence of the web after the dot com bust, but a new model for the computer industry. In addition to his role at O’Reilly Media, Tim is a partner at early stage venture firm O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (OATV) and on the boards of Maker Media (which was spun out from O’Reilly Media in 2012), Code for America, PeerJ, Civis Analytics, and PopVox. He has spoken several times at SXSW and will return to the 2018 event to talk about his newest book “WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us.” O’Reilly is scheduled to speak on Friday, March 9 at 11:00 am.
In 20 words or less, what is the main focus of your current job?
Thinking through what it means to prepare people for the work of the 21st century.
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An archaeologist, or even better, an exo-archaeologist, though I doubted we’d get to do archaeology on other planets within my lifetime!
What are you most passionate about at present?
I’m spending a lot of time trying to get both our business leaders (including entrepreneurs and investors) and policy makers to WAKE UP. AI and robots aren’t going to take human jobs unless that’s what we ask them to do. The superpower of technology is to augment humans so that they can do things that were previously impossible. If we use it to put people out of work, we are using it wrong. From open source to Web 2.0 to the maker movement to government as a platform, I’ve tried to tell stories about the people and companies that were living in a future other than the current consensus, and I’m doing the same thing now, except trying to point towards the “next economy,” transformed by technology far more deeply than it has been even now. There is so much essential work to be done! Let’s use technology to help us do it!
What is your favorite podcast at present and why?
Russ Roberts’ Econtalk. Russ is a libertarian economist, but he never imposes his views on his guests. He prepares deeply, and asks questions that illuminate what his guest is thinking about, not what he wishes they were thinking about. I’m fascinated with economics these days, and this is a great podcast to start with. Russ is also the author of a wonderful book called “How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life,” which, refreshingly, is not about “The Wealth of Nations,” but Adam Smith’s other great book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which everyone who espouses the “invisible hand” should be required to read as a corrective.
In your mind, what is the most overrated tech trend at present?
Oh, there are so many! Self-driving cars are further away from mainstream adoption than a lot of people think; virtual reality is so much less interesting than augmented reality, and even the various flavors of heads-up augmented reality displays miss the point that augmented reality is already with us in our phones. GPS is augmented reality; when you call a Lyft and the driver knows how to find you, that’s augmented reality in practice. Often, looking for the “cool” version makes you miss the workaday version that is really happening. The various ICOs and blockchain fever is probably the worst, though. While blockchain is an incredibly powerful and important idea, and may well end up being worldchanging, the fact that its principal application so far is currency speculation is truly disappointing. And the hype about it being truly decentralized echoes so many past cycles of optimism that ended up ending in massive re-concentration of power.
In your mind, what is the scariest tech trend at present?
Pervasive surveillance cameras, facial recognition, and AI able to identify people in a crowd, track them backwards in time, find out everyone they associate with and everywhere they have been. Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas, has made it compellingly clear that this is the use of AI that we should most fear today, not some far future super intelligence. Close second: drones powered by the same kind of technology and more generally, drones as a disruptive force in warfare. But hey, biotech and bioterror could be even worse.
Personally, what makes you optimistic about the possibilities of artificial intelligence? By contrast, what makes you pessimistic about a robot-enhanced future?
There are so many problems that AI can help us solve! It will be the key to new areas like gene engineering as well as a powerful tool for making our economy more productive. If you think about it, earlier generations of machine intelligence — think Google’s search and ad auction, Amazon’s catalog of 1 billion products, on-demand transportation, and so much more — have all resulted from the ability of our machines to match people far more efficiently with the things they are looking for or needing. Now look around at our society: there is so much work that needs doing, and our old forms of industrial organization are doing a lousy job of matching that work with the resources for doing it.
What makes me pessimistic is that too many companies want to use the new superpowers of technology simply to do the same old things more cheaply, putting people out of work rather than putting them TO work. One of the big lessons I draw from tech platforms that have application to the broader economy is that the best platforms are inclusive, and create more value for their participants than they capture for the platform owner. Once platform growth slows, they tend to become extractive, and that’s when they begin to fail and the creativity goes out of them. This same pattern can be seen in the wider economy. In my book, I try to understand why this happens and suggest some recipes for overcoming the decline in value creation.
The other thing that makes me optimistic is that all of our engagement with machine learning and AI is teaching us about the bias in our algorithms and, and even more importantly, the bias in the data that we feed them, which is based on a history of flawed human choices and behavior. When we are encoding our values into a machine, it makes us question those values. We are engaged in an incredible period of self-reflection as a result. AI can be a mirror, not a master. Now, we just have to make sure to look in that mirror and be sure we like what we see. And if we don’t, we must change!
“WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us” is a primer on tomorrow’s technologies and how we should interact with them. What informs your predictions and prognostications about the next few years? Is it reading other authors and other websites? Is it connecting with the vast array of experts who you have worked with over the years? Or is it more of a gut feel on where all these things are going?
I’m fundamentally a pattern recognizer, and in the book, I outline some of the techniques I use as well as the conclusions I’ve come to. I’ve trained myself to distinguish between the map and the road, the stories we tell about the world and what is actually presenting itself to us. Too often, we miss what is changing because we are following the map rather than actually paying attention. So I try to notice things that are missing from the current map, the current story, and ask myself what they mean, what might happen if some small oddity becomes mainstream. And then I just keep watching, as more and more datapoints emerge and I can draw a line between them.
What is your process like for writing a book? Start to finish, how long did it take for you to put WTF together?
Depending on how you count, my entire life, or about a year. The book is a memoir of nearly 40 years in tech, and incorporates observations I made decades ago, and even bits of my writing from as far back as the turn of the millennium, but the bulk of the writing was done in about four months. From contract signing to turning in the manuscript was a year, though I then spent another month or two on things like notes, index, and some small changes. In the four month period, I engaged via Google Docs with some amazing readers who made the book far better. Jennifer Pahlka, my wife, and the founder and executive director of Code for America, was the one who suggested I add “It’s Up to Us” to the title, and encouraged me to make it the central message of the book. Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, gave me a kind of master class in economics via his comments and suggestions for economics papers I had to read. And conversations with various people turned up new ideas and resources in an ongoing way. For example, Patrick Collison, the co-founder and CEO of Stripe, handed me his own partially-marked up copy of Ryan Avent’s wonderful book The Wealth of Humans, which ended up playing an important role in the framing of one of my chapters.
Did you start writing WTF before or after the November 2016 election? Did the Trump victory change your perception of what tomorrow will be like?
The book was written mostly, but not entirely, before the election. The election confirmed my worst fears about the abuse of social media. If I’d finished the book a few months later, topics that I merely hinted at would have been expanded on considerably. For example, I quoted an anonymous US government official who’d told me “we just fought our first cyberwar, and we lost,” but I didn’t go into any of the details about Russian meddling that have come out since the election.
Tim O’Reilly photo above by Christopher Michel.
Other installments of the March Magic series include interviews with Guy Kawasaki, Robyn Metcalfe, Stephanie Agresta, Andrew Hyde, Brad King, Gary Shapiro, Chris Messina, Yuval Yarden, Jenny 8. Lee, Aziz Gilani and whurley.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.
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