Complexity in a real-time world

The series of events at Mozilla over the past 2 weeks has been charged with emotion, principle, opinion and most certainly, consequences. While the dust is far from settled, I am at last feeling able to formulate a few salient, if not preliminary, conclusions.

Mozilla is a unique animal. We’re a company. We’re a non-profit. We’re a mission-driven org. We’re makers of products and just as significantly, a global community and yes, social movement that focuses on protecting the web which we view as a public good. Trying to extrapolate certain lessons from what has happened typically falls short because we straddle so many worlds and categories. Some people who have said this best:

  • Pascal Finette. Pascal hired me at Mozilla and worked in a variety of capacities over his 4.5 years there, the last of which was working directly with our Chair).
  • Mark Surman. Mark heads up our Foundation side of things (if you don’t know quite what I am referring to, see my primary point I’m making e.g. we are a hybrid of ‘things’ and typical categories fall short).

Leadership has special requirements. As Mozilla board member Reid Hoffman explained, it entails a ‘head of state’ component – meaning one who can influence, mobilize and exercise diplomacy in complex situations. When the leader is of an organization as diverse and global as Mozilla, additional constraints apply. Some people who got this right include:

  • Lauren Bacon. Lauren’s part of a discussion list I am on and knows a number of Mozillians and our work.
  • Slate.

And yet…. unfortunately these very important distinctions have escaped much of the public dialogue. It’s disheartening to see how many posts pretty much equate Mozilla to any organization and the CEO to any employee in order to make linkbait-friendly conclusions such as “Mozilla’s Gay Marriage Litmus Test Violates Liberal Values” (my love for this publication has been waning over the past few years; this doesn’t help) or “Brendan Eich’s Defenestration” Let’s just forget that he resigned against the wishes of the board. In fact, let’s just forget any of the facts since facts actually typically backfire.

Mercifully a few thoughtful writers are starting to resist the urge to cave in to the temptation to draw rapid, polarizing and simplistic conclusions (which have the additional benefit of attracting traffic) and instead do some balanced, researched thinking and reporting on the issues at hand. A sample:

So, what now? While this emergence of more holistic writing gives me hope that with a little more time and thoughtfulness, a more balanced, reasonable and better telling of the story will ultimately emerge, the episode gives me pause. In a world where we crave not only real-time information, but real-time conclusions, where is the room for complexity? For exceptions to the axioms and memes that attract so much web traffic? How can we pause and absorb complexity?

In a recent thread my friend referenced an interesting analysis (quote from George Friedman):

Cultures lives in three states. The first state is barbarism. Barbarians believe that the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn’t live the way the live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption and destruction. The third state is decadence. Decadents cynically believe that nothing is better than anything else. If they hold anyone in contempt, it is those that believe in anything. Nothing is worth fighting for.

Civilization is the second and most rare state. Civilized people are able to balance two contradictory thoughts in their minds. They believe that there are truths and that their cultures approximate those truths. At the same time, they hold open their mind the possibility that they are in error.

The piece does not draw a clear conclusion on what state we are currently in, and I’m not sure myself. Except that this doesn’t feel like civilization. Perhaps I’m still processing. Which makes sense….because this is complex.

p.s. I left comments open. If you are so inclined, please read this.

Spring and Honor

Today, as always on the first day of spring, my step-dad Richard celebrated his birthday.

We tend to have a cyclical relationship to birthdays: when we’re young, we cannot wait for them as they signify celebration (and getting stuff). As we age (and are also trying to get rid of stuff), we shy away from them. But at some point, the celebration mode kicks back into gear.

This is definitely true for Richard, who today is now 92 years old.

richard reflects

Richard reflecting in Tucson, AZ.

This year we didn’t even wait for Richard’s special day to celebrate him. When he suffered a stroke in January, he received the honor due to a war veteran who piloted 35 dangerous missions over enemy territory. One mission was so treacherous that his plane was one of 3 that made it back out of an initial group of 30.

I’ve always marveled at how he did it. Personally I grew up in a safe suburb, went to college in an ivory tower Disneyland, and have lived in one of the most beautiful places in the world. So it’s difficult to imagine what life would be like if I suddenly found myself in a plane fending off bullets, dropping bombs and accountable for the precious lives of a crew depending on me.

Richard’s survival extended far beyond the war. He went on to outlive his parents, siblings, many of his friends, and even a child. Add to that prostate cancer, an aneurysm, a stroke and several hard falls impacting his head. We’ve concluded he’s pretty much invincible.

But always deserving honor. Happy birthday Richard. As he and I discussed today, there’s a reason he is still with us. And we are still with him.

On my past few visits to see Richard, I’ve asked him to reflect on his experiences. Enjoy :)

What it’s like to go on a mission dropping bombs:

Fighting for justice sometimes means fighting on the “inside”:

How his chief paradigm of people’s core motivations (either money, recognition or power) impacted his sales approach:

Not all casting is the same

Last year I was intrigued when I read about Magic Recs, which purported to be an ‘experiment’ by Twitter. The goal was to offer intelligent suggestions on which Twitter accounts would be interesting to follow. Always keen to understand how social graphs are developed and enhanced, I was further intrigued by the fact that ‘signing up’ simply entailed that I follow the eponymous Twitter account.

I was a bit shocked when I then started seeing all kinds of notifications not of suggested accounts to follow, but of specific actions taken by my own followers. This is how it looks:


This targeted, direct messaging of other users’ behavior took me aback. While technically information about who is following who is available to those who have copious amounts of spare time to hunt for such information, disclosure of these events – as they happen – is not the service people sign up for when they sign up for Twitter, which is effectively an individual broadcast service.

When I (quickly) concluded that simply learning who other people are following is not an ingenious recommendation algorithm – and surely one that breaches the assumptions I made when I signed up – I unfollowed the account.

Now the ‘experiment’ is a default. And while with some effort you can opt out of seeing others activity by deselecting the pre-checked ‘recommendations’ notification box, you can’t opt out of others seeing yours.

As a broadcast service, this narrowcasting is an entirely different, intrusive proposition. This is why people balked when location-aware services using APIs from check-in services (reference Highlight and Banjo, who since ‘pivoted’) started notifying them who was closeby without any specific intent by the user to do so. Sure this was all ‘discoverable’ – but it was far from the experience that those checking in (or simply allowing their location to be picked up by certain apps) signed up for.

Because narrow ain’t broad. It’s different.

Update 20 March 2014: despite changing my notification settings to no longer receive these messages, I continue to receive direct texts of who is following whom. So the unwilling voyeuristm continues.