What Nassim Taleb Misses About Technology and Innovation
A few weeks ago, I posted an article on Forbes called Sorry Nassim Taleb, Technology Actually Does Matter in which I explained a number of ways that technology has transformed business and society.
Mr. Taleb contacted me to object that I mischaracterized his views. A few readers also commented with similar objections. I offered to correct any mistakes that he could point out, but Mr. Taleb declined to do so.
While I disagree with Mr. Taleb on this point, he’s a thinker I greatly admire and feel should be taken seriously. So I want to describe Mr. Taleb’s comments in greater detail and explain why I believe he is in error. While he claims that he is not anti-technology, his views undermine the innovation process which brings it about.
What Nassim Taleb Really Means (I Think)
Nassim Taleb became famous for writing books like Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan that challenged conventional views about financial models and the mathematical statistics on which they are based. His new book, Antifragile, focuses on the need to build systems that become stronger with stress, rather than ones that are susceptible to collapse.
Thus, Mr. Taleb felt the need to comment on technology, an area that is obviously outside his realm of expertise. In an excerpt of the book on Salon, he recounts a dinner with friends in which the most prominent technologies, like silverware, wine, glass, chairs and even the shoes he walks to the restaurant in, haven’t substantially changed for thousands of years.
He then describes the disappointment he felt when attending technology conferences and finding that technologists seemed overly enthusiastic with “the modern for it’s own sake” and apparently found the experience so objectionable that he felt the need to invent a new term: neomania.
But these conferences, while colorful and slick with computerized images and fancy animations, felt depressing. I knew I did not belong. It was not just their additive approach to the future (failure to subtract the fragile rather than add to destiny). It was not entirely their blindness by uncompromising neomania. It took a while for me to realize the reason: a profound lack of elegance. Technothinkers tend to have an “engineering mind” — to put it less politely, they have autistic tendencies. While they don’t usually wear ties, these types tend, of course, to exhibit all the textbook characteristics of nerdiness — mostly lack of charm, interest in objects instead of persons, causing them to neglect their looks. They love precision at the expense of applicability. And they typically share an absence of literary culture.
Overlooking the irascible ad hominem attacks, Mr. Taleb is making a rather facile argument – that most new technology never pans out and therefore technologists would be infinitely better served if they showed more reverence for what has lasted for millennia and less excitement for what is merely new. Technology is, to follow his argument, fragile rather than antifragile and therefore flawed.
I have some sympathy for Mr. Taleb’s views. He is, after all, a trader by both profession and inclination. The hordes at technology conferences must have seemed much like packs of Wall Street traders rushing to invest in the latest fad. The mass infatuation with so many bad bets obviously touched off a nerve.
Unfortunately, his tirade reveals a gross misunderstanding of how innovation works.
The Usefulness Of Useless Things
What Mr. Taleb fails to understand is that technologists are supremely aware that most of their efforts will come to nothing, but are nevertheless unbowed. They are, in fact, searching out black swans (to use Mr. Taleb’s own parlance), in full knowledge that they will spend most of their time rushing up blind alleys. As Thomas Edison once said:
If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
What, I wonder, would Mr. Taleb make of Edison’s 9,999th try?
The truth is that useless things often end up very useful indeed. Modern information technology did not originate with engineers, but has its roots in an obscure academic crisis, whose major figures, such as Cantor, Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Gödel and others never dreamed that their work would have important practical consequences.
The truth is that innovation is a messy business and that’s exactly what Mr. Taleb encountered at those technology conferences. Lots of people running around, spouting strange acronyms and neologisms, enthralled and enraptured by the possibility that they’ve hit upon the next big thing.
And most of it will come to nothing.
What Mr. Taleb seems to miss is that these are not Wall Street hustlers living out their “master of the universe” fantasies with other people’s money, but people dedicated to following their dreams and willing to put their own skin in the game to do so.
What’s more, most of technology’s black swans are positive ones. Somewhere in there, amidst the nerdiness and lack of charm that Mr. Taleb abhors, is something that will make his life better, easier and more enjoyable as he goes about his routine of comfortable dinners and intellectual conversations.
So, despite his protestations to the contrary, Mr. Taleb espouses a profoundly anti-technological view. He seems to think (and here he becomes uncharacteristically incoherent, so it’s hard to tell), that we’d all be better off if technologists would just cut out all the newfangled talk and focus their efforts on inventing stuff that they know will work.
Sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. As I recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Innovation is a particularly sticky problem because it so often remains undefined.” You can’t simply focus on the technologies that are sure bets, but must take into account the entire matrix.
So what Mr. Taleb is saying (although he’ll probably deny it, but it is the logical consequence of his argument) is that we should remain in the upper right quadrant, where both the problem and the domain are well defined and he would presumably assign the lowest value on basic research and disruptive innovation, which have no clear applicability.
Yet it is there that we break truly new ground.
The Kahneman Principle
The trap that Mr. Taleb seems to have fallen into is something that he should be all too aware of, the tendency for experts in one field to misapply their experience to one with which they are unfamiliar. Daniel Kahneman, someone Taleb cites frequently, described the phenomenon thoroughly in his recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
When he looked at the exuberant technology crowd, chasing their dreams, what he saw was but another version of the Wall Street traders that he spent a lifetime learning to despise. However, what his instincts tell him is a bug is actually a very important feature.
What he misses is that, in technology, failure is an important feedback mechanism. Not the kind of failure where your clients go broke while you take your multi-million dollar bonus and lick your wounds with expensive chardonnay, but the soul crunching variety that coincides with having the air sucked out of your dreams.
Then those “Technothinkers” which Mr. Taleb loves to denigrate begin anew, chasing the next dream, lacking “elegance,” knowing that they will likely fail again and again before they might finally get it right and become worthy of Mr. Taleb’s table conversation at cozy Manhattan cafes.
And that’s what Nassim Taleb misses about technology and innovation. Its purpose is not to entertain the delicate tastes of the chattering classes, but to improve the lives of us all.