The Problem of Sameness

Photo by  Clark Tibbs  on  Unsplash

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

This article is so good for so many reasons.

It tells the story of how ex-Googler, Jessica Powell, left Silicon Valley not to set up a VC or become a consultant but, rather, she left to go to graduate school and study for a master of fine arts in creative writing. She's just published this work of fiction, Medium’s first novel.

The key takeout from the NYT article is called the problem of sameness. It states that we are not going to get a better, more responsible tech industry until we get a more intellectually diverse one. I’d also contend that a lack of diversity is slowing genuine progress.

Sameness and insularity were Powell’s reasons for leaving tech. This is what her novel, The Big Disruption, is about, fictionalising the truth that tech keeps making the same mistakes because, largely, the technology echo chamber keeps employing, funding and championing the same sort of people who build the same sort of organisations. Powell calls it a "monoculture of thought" and, if like me, you've spent any time in this world, you kind of get the feeling you know what she's talking about. Founders have the same education. Employees have the same backgrounds. Offices have the same perks and layouts. Companies have the same values. 

The success of the tech sector is undeniable. It's given rise to the most valuable companies on earth. But, like finance before, doing the same thing over and over again is not going to build a sector that lasts forever. Well, it might last forever in some form but it won't lead and thrive. It will grow repetitive, mundane and it will become clogged by groupthink, safety and a yearning for the  crowded middle.

If you’ve worked in finance, especially at a large institution, you’ll know that playing safe and remaining the same is usually the quickest way to long term security and promotion. Conforming works. But over the last decade, technology has added innovation and variety and given finance back a semblance of cutting edge and cool.

In fact, tech gave 20th Century finance a future, a stay of execution. Goldman admits that it is now a technology company and any bank that doesn’t do similar will soon be left for dead by Monzo, Revolut, WeChat and any A.N.Other coming fast over the horizon with an account full of Softbank’s money. But finance as we know it is still slowly dying and its symptoms are that everyone acts and thinks the same. Technology as we know it might not be far behind.

Of course, the corporate structure of large organisations means that monoculture is actually very important. Like a society or a country, a company can't function if its employees are all operating under different rules, chasing different goals and acting in different ways. Hence, sameness allows a company to double down on products and strategies that work by repeating the successes that they've had in the past over and over again. Like Ford’s assembly line. Plan and input. Assemble and build. Package and sell. Repeat. This can lead to profit. But it won’t lead to groundbreaking progress. And it also marginalises input from genuine innovators and free thinkers.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates at ages 17 and 15. Taken 5 years before Microsoft was founded.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates at ages 17 and 15. Taken 5 years before Microsoft was founded.

Which makes me think of the great Paul Allen who died this week. He was a man with singular thought. Well, dual thought as his partnership with Gates was everything. But Microsoft would never have materialised if Gates and Allen had been sucked into the corporate structure. Neither would Amazon, Facebook or Uber. They needed rebellious, free thinking, first-moving individuals to go it alone, with the instinct and bravery that said they were equally prepared to fail as they were to succeed. 

In music, art, science or sport, greatness can only be found by selfish individuals who choose to go and look for it, by those who think entirely individually in a radically different way. You've never heard of those people who tried and failed. But you have heard of Mozart, Warhol, Darwin and Ali, who were anything but the same as what went before. They didn’t just cause change. They changed everything.

This isn’t a diatribe or a bullshit Medium post about being different. I’m not different. I’m pretty same-y myself. Rather, this is just a thought about how we can improve tech today and what it will mean for someone to genuinely break the mould and do something truly new. It’s also not a criticism of any employee or leader. For the most part, the sector continues to do great work.

If you're leading a business, it’s perfectly fine to just stick to the rules and double down on what went before, creating efficiencies and driving growth within the parameters of your chosen field. That still builds great businesses. It will still lead to profit and happiness. And that really is cool.

But Powell’s approach and her work are refreshing and it brings certain longstanding elements of the technology sector into focus, diversity being one. Businesses should be looking to adapt and integrate as many different thoughts, opinions, educations and backgrounds as possible. Maximising their input will lead to innovation and progress within the confines of a corporation.

More generally, Powell’s words and work remind us that building a legacy that lasts for centuries, not just decades, is exceptionally hard because it can almost always only be built by those who are outside of the confines of what exists already. They are able to think outside of what is to make what is not. To do it, they have to think and act radically. And they have to do it alone. History, for the most part, proves this.  

That’s why the next stage of development in society - be it in technology or elsewhere - is likely going to come from outside a monoculture because that’s the only way to get around the problem of sameness.

Edward Playfair