Kentucky, Galapagos Islands, Franchises and Groupthink

The state of Kentucky has 120 counties. It has so many because the idea was that you should be able to make it to the county seat and back in a single day. That speaks to how isolated people used to be.

Likewise, the Galapagos Islands are known for their diversity, in part because the islands are so isolated. That isolation provided the opportunity for species to evolve on their own.

I’ll bet that businesses that began from 1900-1950 were more varied than businesses that started from 1950-2014. I suspect that the growth of franchises has radically reduced the diversity of businesses. Drive around almost any city in the U.S. and you’re likely to see the same cookiecutter chains that you could see in almost any other city. The disruptive advent of the car brought all sorts of new opportunities, but it also encouraged a monoculture of franchise businesses.

The web has been an amazing invention. On one hand, you could create a website and instantly reach a worldwide audience. That disruption has created a ton of opportunities that are still being explored. But I do wonder if connecting so many people to each other will lead to certain types of groupthink.

If connecting so many people ultimately leans toward less diversity of thought, that might prevent society from making faster progress or exploring new approaches to problems. Maybe that’s why many successful recent businesses have seemed crazy or contrarian at first blush?

Marathon similarity

Imagine that you’re training for the San Francisco Marathon. You’d like to prepare for the distinctive pattern of hills on the course:

Elevation map for SF Marathon

Now if you live in San Francisco, you could just run along the actual race course. But what if you don’t live near San Francisco? Wouldn’t it be cool if a service could suggest a running course near you that was similar to San Francisco’s marathon? That way, you might live somewhere like Portland or San Diego, but you could still prepare for the hills that you’d face in the real race.

This could be a fun/tricky problem. You could start by just dumbly comparing elevations to see how similar two runs are. A site like Strava already has GPS traces from runners, so they could compute similarity between runs. Within a selected radius, Strava could say which runs were most similar to (say) sections of the Boston Marathon.

Elevation similarity might be the easiest way to start, but Strava has other measures like “Suffer Score” that it could use instead. I’d be curious to know what running route in the Bay Area of California is most similar to the Boston Marathon, for example.

Earning loyalty

Here’s something that I wrote internally within Google in mid-2013. I think at the time, folks within Google were discussing XMPP. The discussion wasn’t as much about client-to-server XMPP, but server-to-server XMPP, which is a less followed area. Anyway, here’s the internal post I wrote:

We want to compete on a level playing field

We’ve expressed the principle of “Don’t be evil” from the early days of Google. Yet it wasn’t until 2006 that Eric enunciated the statement that “We would never trap user data.” I think Google’s DNA has another principle encoded in it that we haven’t called out clearly enough: We want to compete on a level playing field.

When we play on a level field, we work harder for users because we have to compete based on merit. If another search engine crawls the open web and returns better search results, people will switch to that new search engine immediately–so we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our search results.

Likewise, when people can leave Google, it makes us work harder to forge excellent products that earn our users’ loyalty. Data Liberation means that anyone can download their Gmail or their Calendar or Docs or their ad campaigns and then take their business elsewhere. That keeps us honest and working hard. We should strive to put our own products on a level playing field so that our incentive remains to deliver the best products and services we can.

The desire for a level playing field also partly explains why Chrome and Android are so important. Without Chrome, we’d be at the mercy of Internet Explorer or other web browsers when users want to get to Google. Without Android, phone makers could shut Google out of mobile phones completely. Chrome and Android help ensure that users can get to Google without interference; they protect our users from other companies’ potentially unlevel playing fields.

I think to many Googlers, the open web represents the ultimate level playing field. That’s why so many Googlers react so negatively to the idea of walled gardens, proprietary standards, or products that don’t interoperate well. The desire to compete fairly on a level playing field leads naturally to open standards, protocols, and interoperability.

Some other companies that don’t federate well have succeeded recently. [A specific company I won’t call out explicitly] sucked contacts out of Gmail but refused to export contacts back out. But I worry we learned the wrong lesson from that. The lesson isn’t that data liberation or a level field makes us a sitting duck for bad actors; the lesson should be that we may need to get creative to encourage better behavior–for example, Google modified its contacts export to require reciprocity.

At the top levels of Google, there’s a clear vision: a beautiful, seamless experience for users. I agree that’s vitally important, but I believe a large part of Google’s brand is also “functional”: Google is always up, it always works, it’s always fast, it always gives you what you need. I believe a beautiful, seamless experience has to rest on a functional foundation. And for many Googlers, a large part of “functional” includes openness and interoperability–again, a level playing field.

Google has done very well while promoting the principles of the internet: openness, transparency, and a level playing field. I think “We want to compete on a level playing field” follows from “Don’t be evil,” but I’d like us to recognize this part of our DNA and emphasize “We want to compete on a level playing field” more strongly.

Backward-looking or forward-looking?

History is an angel being blown backwards into the future.
History is a pile of debris,
and the angel wants to go back and fix things,
to repair things that have been broken.

But there is a storm blowing from Paradise,
and this storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future.
And this storm is called Progress.

— From the song “The Dream Before” by Laurie Anderson, based on a quote by Walter Benjamin

One lens that I find useful is whether a project is backward-looking or forward-looking. A backward-looking project is one that attempts to fix something that is broken. A forward-looking project starts with a fresh slate and attempts to create something new.

Both kinds of projects are important and necessary. For example, a backward-looking project might be to tackle corruption in politics. If government doesn’t respond to citizens’ desires and needs, that’s a long-term threat to our society. Likewise, a lot of regulation is backward-looking because it reacts to events. Another example: ton of startups succeed by fixing things that are fundamentally broken today.

An example of a forward-looking project might be to build a self-driving car. With many forward-looking projects there’s an inherent bet that you’ll make something useful enough that when society’s mores and regulations catch up, people will see the value in your project.

An example of forward-looking views is Peter Diamandis, who argues that our future is abundance.

Take something like climate change. A backward-looking approach might try to figure out how to improve coal plants to make them cleaner. A forward-looking approach might be to try to figure out how to build a practical fusion power plant. Projects like smart grids or improved solar cells could be backward-looking or forward-looking depending on the level of granularity.

I don’t really have a good ending to this blog post–this is just a way of looking at the world that interests me. Society will always need people fixing things that are broken. I feel like forward-looking projects might be a little more fun (or at least leave you feeling more optimistic). But unless you choose your project carefully, you run the risk of rushing forward, only to suffer major pain if society disagrees with you.

The four cities that matter most in the United States?

If you had to pick the top four cities that matter the most in the U.S. based on the industry that they represent, which cities would you pick? I’d argue for these four:

– New York City: money/finance/Wall Street
– Los Angeles: culture, such as TV and movies
– Silicon Valley (taking San Jose up to San Francisco as one mega-city): technology
– Washington D.C.: power

Beyond those four areas, things get murkier. Other cities like Chicago or Philadelphia are clearly important, but they’re diverse enough that they’re not synonymous with a specific industry. A city like Las Vegas is well-known for gambling, but would you rank gambling as more important than money, culture, technology or power? And frankly, you could also choose New York City for other industries such as publishing or journalism.

Likewise, you can absolutely have an impact in (say) technology outside of the Bay Area–think Boston, Seattle, or Austin–but it’s probably easier to drive technological change in the Bay Area.

Looking at it from the other direction, if you consider other large areas of the economy like energy, health care, or education, you don’t immediately think of a specific city associated with those industries.

I find this “four city” theory interesting. For example, you might consider politics or current events through the four city lens for insights about how the different areas interact with each other. Or you might look at a city like Detroit that has been known for the car industry, and consider what causes a city to thrive or not. Or you can look at how the United States interacts with other countries, and break down that interaction by money, culture, technology, or power. Or you might ask yourself whether you want to live in one of those four regions, or decide that you deliberately don’t want to live there.

Do you agree or think I’m crazy? I’d be curious to hear what other industries or cities people would propose adding, or if you think I’m completely off base.

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