Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Loosening order, new realities

It is difficult to characterize a particular era, especially when one is living in it. The last couple of decades have been marked by many unexpected events (beautifully argued as "black swans" by Taleb) and newly emerging value systems. To use a musical metaphor, we are listening to many exotic and new pieces, but they are so numerous now that we have almost forgotten that they were once novel. Many things we take for granted today were rarities and oddities only a few decades ago. How fast the human brain adapts to a changing environment! And we keep marching.

I was studying in the United Kingdom in the middle of the 1990s. I remember quite vividly when a BBC anchorman remarked to an IT guy speaking live from the West Coast via satellite that "you do not have to wear a tie and a jacket when you are a millionaire". This idea, that a businessperson with power and wealth does not necessarily have to dress "seriously", is such a cliche nowadays that it is almost not worth mentioning it. We are so accustomed to millionaires and billionaires dressed in T-shirts and jeans, looking like complete nerds (in many cases they actually are in a big way). Indeed, there is no apparent "correlation" between the way one dresses and one's degree of affluence any more. Class is gone, as far as outward looks are concerned. Nowadays a restaurant imposing a strict dress code looks almost moron. "Smart casual" is perhaps the only acceptable dress code, apart from, perhaps, no dress code at all.

Once, attending a conference in Googleplex, I noticed that there was a rather nice looking young fellow. It was none other than Mr. Larry Page himself. Mr. Page must have been worth billions of dollars then, but his outlook did not tell. There were a few admiring girls around Mr. Page, but that could happen to any nice fellow about his age. Judging from how he looked, he could have been a graduate student. Actually, Mr. Page was probably a graduate student in his spirit. Remaining a graduate student in spirit is probably the name of the game and the strength of a company like Google.

There have been several defining moments in the history of information technology. When Jack Kilby conceived the idea to implement circuits on a silicon chip, he was laying down the formula for a whole industry. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin hit upon the idea to analyze the web as a graph structure, they were effectively bootstrapping themselves to super-successful entrepreneurship. When Mark Zuckerberg was dumped by his girlfriend, his unique method of revenge, putting a pair of girl's faces on a webpage asking the visitors to click which was hotter, opened the door to the most successful social network service, the Facebook.

The general trend of the information revolution, combined with the procession of globalization, where people from various cultural backgrounds are brought together to interact, have led to the loosening of the old orders, and emergence of new ones. The evolution/revolution happens in unexpected and haphazard steps, challenging assumptions, upsetting notions.
When put in a state of chaos, we seek order and meanings. A religion, an ideology, a value system, a theory, an empirical evidence, an illusion. We are always in search of life-saving ideas. We are badly in need of one now, in this remarkable era of transitions and redefinitions. Ideas come, ideas go. And some stick and remain, through a mysterious process of evolution of memes.

(Fragment from a book I am writing, codenamed "Malmesbury")