Discover more from Res Extensa
Res Extensa #2: Gradual Innovation, Gurri the Prophet, Segment, and Modes of Control
How innovation happens, Martin Gurri's landscape of public opinion and discourse, Segment gets acquired, and insights from Andy Grove
Hi everyone. Welcome to issue #2 of Res Extensa, my biweekly newsletter on technology, progress, learning, and improvement.
The last couple of weeks have been fairly hectic both on the work and personal sides. As Zoom dominates the daytime, I try and spend as much time as possible offline and devoted to my other pursuits — workouts, books, and a lot of time with these people. With so much going on on the professional side, writing on the website becomes the outlet for other ideas, and I remain grateful to those that send along feedback and positive comments. Makes all the effort worthwhile.
On the home front, we're in the midst of planning some kind of vacation (if you can call it that in the COVID Era) up to North Georgia / South Carolina. As the weather is still in the muggy 80s here in Florida, it's too compelling when I see forecasts in the 50s and lower up in the "northern south." Looking forward to it.
Onto the update.
Innovation is Deliberate and Accretive
I read this thought-provoking piece by Jason Crawford on his excellent site Roots of Progress. He asks the question: is the burst of scientific progress over the past couple centuries a fluke that we should expect not to be repeated or a trend that we can rely on to continue? My answer to that question is more the latter, but with the caveat that innovation requires continued, deliberate effort on the part of thousands of creators and tinkerers — but it is a trend over the last 300 years, with substantive causes.
I wrote that Progress is Not Automatic; to remain a trend, we need to understand that innovation is spurred by free people given license to experiment with ideas. Here I combined some of Matt Ridley's core principles from his recent book How Innovation Works: it's a serendipitous, gradual, and recombinant process that thrives in permissionless ecosystems. A key factor to appreciate, though, is that it shouldn't be taken as a given, or taken for granted.
The Prophet of the Revolt
Martin Gurri is one of my favorite thinkers in the current media environment. Antonio Garcia-Martínez published an extensive interview with him that touches on his core theses about what's gone wrong in the public information sphere. Gurri was a media analyst with the CIA for decades, a perch from which he got to observe the mid-2000s shift from controlled, centralized media institutions to the chaotic, decentralized universe of social media in which anyone can have a platform.
Following the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, but prior to the 2016 election and its populist upwelling, he published The Revolt of the Public, one of my favorite books I've read this year. If you want the précis on his ideas, check out The Revolt of the Public in 10 Minutes.
Twilio Adds a Segment
With so many companies now buying dozens or hundreds of SaaS products to conduct their business, everyone's got slices of customer data fragmented across these systems. That's where Segment comes in: pull together, transform, and unify all of that content and send to the places you need it. It's an incredible product that solves a lot of problems with cross-system integrations that no one wants to build in-house (the sign of a great SaaS company idea).
Twilio is now at a nearly $50bn market cap (!!) in the developer-focused space of messaging and communications. Adding Segment to that portfolio is an excellent move.
I remembered this interview from an episode of This Week in Startups from last year. Segment founder Peter Reinhardt explains the founding story of Segment. They started as an edtech company, but invalidated that idea and pivoted to analytics a couple months after taking their first funding:
Modes of Control
Since we just polished up a round of OKRs for the fourth quarter, I thought it was relevant to pull back one from the archives on king-of-OKRs Andy Grove's "modes of control" idea. I wrote about this concept last year.
It's one of my favorite mental models from High Output Management. The general idea plots two different dimensions:
Free market dynamics — the two sides of an interaction can be driven by self interest (example: purchasing a product in a store)
Contractual obligations — when the value of a good or service is not easily defined, two sides must engaged in a prearranged set of terms defining one another's expectations (e.g. the employee-employer arrangement)
Cultural values — when the environment is rapidly changing or circumstances are ambiguous, even contracts can't be relied on (e.g. intra-company team dynamics, especially in startups)
"CUA" factor (complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity)
Generally, the higher the CUA factor, the more leaders need to lean on organizational norms and corporate culture. This is why if you throw brand new employees (with high self-interest early in their tenure) into a flat, structureless organization that relies exclusively on cultural norms to make decisions, it can rapidly devolve if there's a) a high enough growth rate and b) a weaker cultural scaffolding than you realize.
This idea reinforces the value of strong cultural structures, but also demonstrates that leaning on that for every situation is naive and irresponsible. Knowing where and how to control behaviors within your organization is essential to build a healthy company.
Over the past couple weeks I've been working in some steps to improve my sleep. Other than trying to obey a stricter schedule, mostly it's about what I'm taking away from myself, through the Screen Time controls on devices, downtime settings for apps, and light reduction in the evenings. So far things have improved, but the increase in average time is mostly due to being more rigid about going to bed.
Since a few people have asked recently, my sleep tracking is done on the Garmin fenix 5 watch I wear. I'm considering the Apple Watch, but I rely too much on the Garmin's advanced activity tracking for that right now. Plus the fenix's battery life lasts for weeks, whereas I doubt I'd get anything close on the Apple Watch yet.
Excerpts from the Archives
I've been pushing my way through Jacque Barzun's epic From Dawn to Decadence, his 800 page magnum opus on western cultural history.
Each part of the book roughly covers a century, from the 16th to the 20th. Part 2 begins roughly around 1660, along the theme of the shifting relationship between individuals and the forms of governance above them. Here he notes one of the fundamental movements responsible for this shift — the move from "kings & realms" to "monarchs & nations":
The idea of a nation, a continuous, stable territory with an increasingly homogeneous population, was hardly clear in theory, let alone in practice.
Nation implies the nation-state, the one source of authority, just as monarch when compared to king means undisputed rule by one alone. This double development—king into monarch, realm into nation—is the mark of the revolution, in keeping with the definition given earlier: a violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea.
The late 17C isn't that long ago on the human timeline, but as Barzun points out, the modern conception of the nation-state is a fairly recent one.
That's it for the second issue. So far this has been enjoyable to put together. Going through my previous posts always leads to resurrecting ideas from the past that stimulate new ones.
If you're enjoying it, please forward to your friends and subscribe for future updates.