Tim O’Reilly: a model “reinventor”

I went to the Long Now lecture last night in San Francisco on “The Birth of the Global Mind,” by Tim O’Reilly, the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, which publishes technical books on programming and puts on innovative conferences like FOO camps and the Maker Faires.

The talk itself was terrific and put a twist on a topic of  increasing interest to many people: what happens as computers continue to get increasingly powerful and connected up. Much speculation has gone into artificial intelligence and the so-called singularity when computers might become smarter than humans. O’Reilly talked not about artificial intelligence but collective intelligence. What happens when all the humans on the planet get connected up and augmented with powerful digital tools. He talked about a new kind of “man-machine symbiosis.” If interested, check out the podcast when it posts.

However, I was just as interested in O’Reilly as a “reinventor,” the kind of person who we expect will provide anchor interviews and stimulate roundtable discussion over interactive group video in a new project to Reinvent America being put on by my new company, Reinventors Network. (If you want to find more about that new effort check out the section on this website called Startup.)

A reinventor ideally is an expert in a field who deeply understands technology and has thought a lot about the future. He or she gets that fundamental changes must come to transition the country and the world into the 21st century. The new systems need to adapt to what are the new realities: the world is going all digital, fully global and must become more sustainable. They are up to the challenge of helping figure out those new systems and they are full of big, bold ideas on how to do it.

O’Reilly was chock full of ideas for reinvention, and many of them came out in the question and answer period with host Stewart Brand. I’ll give a few:
  • Reinvent Privacy: He went right up against the default position of many Netizens and progressives and libertarians alike: keep most info private and in the control of the individual. O’Reilly made a powerful case about how much utility can come from shared data. He speculated the ultimate solution will come by opening up most data and figuring out new norms about what you can do with it and what you can’t.
  • Reinvent Healthcare: He had praise for Obamacare and applauded the opening of data that the law promotes and the experiments that will come from it. But he pointed the way towards much more fundamental reinvention that needs to come in this health space. Soon every individual could have his or her complete genome, but the value of having it will come from comparing it to everyone else’s. Radical openness could greatly boost prevention and help drive down costs. On an even simpler level, the new paradigm of healthcare should be constant testing and diagnosis at all levels of care to fine-tune what works and what does not for each individual.
  • Reinvent Regulation: Most government regulation now is broken because it often sets the terms at the beginning and stays brittle and bureaucratic afterwards. O’Reilly singled out the approach of central banks like America’s Federal Reserve which set general goals and then have a variety of nobs and levers that they constantly adjust to adapt to new realities and steer closer to those goals. That approach should be more the standard.
  • Reinvent Financial Systems: O’Reilly said the biggest example of the Global Brain going wrong to date was the 2008 Financial Collapse. All those connected financial brains aided by powerful computers led the whole world into a global economic meltdown. He blasted the current regime around Wall Street and singled out Goldman Sachs at one point. As of now, “You have to re-engineer the whole system.”  He put out an intriguing idea that financial regulation should be less about humans keeping their eyes open and be more like algorithms that help stop spam…
  • Reinvent Government: Like many people, O’Reilly lamented that the way we govern ourselves is broken. The system of democracy that we started in the early days of the Republic “does not scale very well.” The founders, (despite what the conservative priesthood of judges think), built the system to be constantly reinvented through amendments. We had a burst of such amendments in the early days, and a couple other bursts, with the latest in the early 20th century. But since then our democracy has become sclerotic, with few efforts to amend.  O’Reilly had a very 21st century organizing principle to apply: think of government as a platform. It’s in the business of creating platforms on which the rest of society can run.
  • Reinvent the Economy: O’Reilly riffed off the book Race Against the Machine, and talked about how the advance of increasingly sophisticated robots will severely challenge our current economy and force new concepts of work. He framed it as not a race against the machine but a race with the machine. Yes, a lot of middle class jobs will go away when we get cars and trucks that drive by themselves, as Google and others already have demonstrated. But other forms of meaningful and decent paying jobs will emerge. For inspiration look at how Apple stores augment their workers with technology and make that work more creative and fun. Or look at how people are making a living creating content over  YouTube. Or how people are creating unique experiences and making money off things like airbnb.com.

O’Reilly did not have all the answers – far from it. But he provided a bunch of good starting points on how we could reinvent many of the systems in America, and by extension, the rest of the world. He had the right big-picture analysis, the right framework on the future, the right set of values that seemed to inform his thinking, and a can-do attitude that was inspiring. In short, he was a model “Reinventor.” We need many more of him, and we hopefully will get them in the years to come.

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