Nathan Torkington: NZ vs the U.S. (consumption, consumption)

Photo Credit to James Duncan Davidson

Haegwan Kim (HK); When and why did you decide to get involved in the world of computer science?

NT; I was a kid growing up in New Zealand and I was in a very small fishing village.

And it’s not where you would expect there to be a lot of computers and, sure enough, there weren’t a lot of computers, but my parents saw that I was mathematically, wordy, smart. And my uncle was a computer programmer, so they said to him, what should we get him? He said, buy the boy a Commodore 64. I got my sister and my first computer when I was eight, and although I love my sister, I think I spent a lot more time with my computer in those first couple of years.

HK; Hahaha.

NT; It was one of those love at first sight things where I was lost and disappeared into the computer. That set me on my course. It just seemed to be the natural progression from there to take computer science at university and to work with them afterward.

HK; Did you link your works on computer, when you were a kid, with business at that time? Or just your curious?

NT; I was just curious about it. The parents had no particular ambitions whatsoever for me in that area. It was just here’s something that we think would challenge him. And sure enough, it did. It was great.

HK; Were there your friends doing computer thing?

NT; It was hard to find computer friends around where I was. There was a handful of people who had computers and were doing things with them, but I think I was probably the most geeky of the lot and spent the most time there doing it.

HK; Ok, I love geeks. Can you tell me a little bit about the difference between New Zealand and the USA ? You may be familiar with both sides.

NT Yes. I was born in New Zealand and lived there, but I spent ten years in the States, 1995 to 2005, before moving back to New Zealand. The difference between New Zealand and the US: The US is very convenient, is the only way to describe it. Shops are open all the time. There are millions of them. Whatever you want to buy, it’s right there. It’s astonishing to shop in, and it sounds superficial and weird to say, but until you’ve lived outside of America, you really have no idea just how well set up the consumption in America. That was the primary difference that I realized when I moved back.

Other differences, like in the computer scene, I think there are way more people in America than there are in New Zealand, for reference sake, for Americans, is about the square miles of Colorado and about the population of Colorado. It’s about four million, a bit more than four million.

The computer scene in America, of course, is huge and it’s the envy of the rest of the world. Everywhere else in the world wants to make itself a Silicon Valley, and America is very lucky that it has one. In some parts of America you take that for granted. But the amazing thing about Silicon Valley is that the best people in the field all work there. You are constantly bumping into the thinking of brilliant people, and people who work with brilliant people have their skills lifted as well. It’s like playing in the major leagues when you spend some time in Silicon Valley and you realize, holy cow, these people are great and things happen.

There’s a well known bit of research that innovation doesn’t happen in isolation, that you don’t suddenly go from being an agricultural nation to a hi-tech nation. There has to be a step in the middle that you need to draw on a whole bunch of skills in order to make a breakthrough. It’s not just a matter of being scientifically brilliant. In order to bring it to market you need manufacturing, you need sales and marketing skills, you need a whole supply chain and pipeline of products and skills in order to bring this new thing into the world, and trying to go to a completely agricultural place and install a hi-tech supply chain, sales and marketing, development skills, all of that stuff, that’s not going to happen. You have to progressively build out. But Silicon Valley’s already got it. If you start a hi-tech company, all the best business folks for hi-tech companies are already there waiting for you to hire them. All the funding is there waiting to come your way. All the sales contacts that you would need, the leads that you would need, in order to go and sell your product into major retail chains or into enterprises, they’re right there as well. It’s an incredibly easy and convenient place to start something hi-tech, way more so than anywhere else in the world, including New Zealand.

HK; Would you agree if people will build a kind of Silicon Valley in New Zealand?

NT; All around the world people are trying to do that. We’ve got Silicon Welly, which is Wellington version, UK has the Silicon Roundabout.

HK; Hahaha.

NT; Everybody tries to make their own one and with varying degrees of success, and there are lots of ways that it can go wrong. For example, if the government is the one selecting whose company gets funding and goes ahead. Governments are typically bad at taking the kind of risks that go along with new businesses. That’s what private funding is for. You get big returns, but you take big risks. That’s for the world of personal capital.

Then another way it can go wrong is that they try to spring it out of nowhere. There’s no support structure. They’ve picked a completely different field. New Zealand does this well. New Zealand looks for clusters of related companies and encourages them to work together so that they can build products together, support each other and then go out and sell to the world together, and that seems to be working pretty well. I don’t think anything in New Zealand is of the scale of Silicon Valley, but that’s fine. Nothing in the world is of the scale of Silicon Valley.

HK; The world is changing radically every day now. Can you tell me your opinion on what is the most important element to be successful in terms of business in this lightning development?

NT; It is very definitely the ability to listen to your customer and react quickly. That’s the thing that seems to define success. Many of these companies that are successful did not start out with the brilliant idea of doing what they are doing now as successes. They started out with an entirely different idea or maybe slightly different idea, but they listened to the feedback they got from their customers and said, well, the original idea is not going to fly, we need to try something else. And they tried something else, and they tried something else, and they tried something else, and finally they found a thing that did, before they ran out of money. There are a lot of companies that tried something else and ran out of money, never having found the thing that people want. That’s okay. That’s the way it goes. Some win, some don’t. “If you want to win, that’s the way to do it: be flexible, and quick, and nimble in those early stages. Don’t invest a lot upfront building what you think and suspect is the one true solution without ever having verified your ideas and your beliefs with the actual people who will pay you money.

HK; Is it completely unpredictable to see the next big change?

NT; Yes and no. I think there’s a lot of stuff in the air that you can smell that is coming down the field in the short-term. I spent a long time with O’Reilly Media and they think about the zero to five year window of technology, what’s coming in the next five years, and they’re always thinking to the far future as well, but the business opportunities are very obviously in that zero to five year window. They look at that and they see things like greater overlap between the electronic world and the physical world, that the things that we do with our computers, and our iPads, and with our cell phones, previously just used to live on the cell phones, and the iPads, and on the computers, but now we’re starting to be able to control things in the real world. There are people who are wiring their houses up to their computer. It used to be that was a bizarre and geeky thing to do, but more and more that’s getting baked into houses now. That’s not so bizarre. That’s actually a useful core thing to do.

People can have sensors reporting back to their computers. You look at the early stages of that with the guy whose house tweets every time the doorbell rings. He gets to know when somebody is ringing his doorbell, but houses are also tweeting their temperature, whether the air-conditioning is on, how much power is being used, that kind of stuff. The power meter, the idea of smart power meters, again, the intersection of a network of software and then the hardware devices in our homes that report on or control how are homes are using energy means that we can survey our friends and find the best time to do things. We can talk to the power company and say, dynamically, when is the best time for me to be heating up this big cylinder of hot water for my shower? I only need to do that once a day. When’s the power the cheapest? You tell me and I’ll do it then, because right now we have dumb hot water cylinders with no way of knowing what the best time is The system is not as nimble and market-like as it could be, but we’re moving there. Bit by bit we’re integrating the real world with the Web.

HK; As you are the Chair of Where 2.0, can I ask your perspective on the future of the Where 2.0 and locational technology?

NT; That completely folds into that internet of things that I was talking about there, where the real world was meeting those devices. Part and parcel of being aware of the world is knowing exactly where everything is. That was a fun conference. I’m not the Chair of it anymore. Brady Forrest is now the Chair, but I was there for the first two years of it when it was just getting off the ground. That was a great ride. Tim O’Reilly came in November and said, hey, is something going on here? The air is crackling around this Internet mapping thing. There’s so much good stuff that we could do that’s not being done yet, but, man, I can just see it, it should happen. And then I said, okay, sure, we’ll start a conference. Off we go.

HK; Oh cool.

NT; In February Google Maps launched and people started hacking it and it was just this huge take-off in excitement. Their timing was absolutely right for the conference. It was fantastic to be there at that time.

HK; I am just wondering what is the key element to be visionaries who can make huge impacts on our society, like you and Tim O’Reilly?

NT; There are a couple of repeating elements. You see a lot of people who have impact, because they control something that is very big. Regardless of their personality or regardless of how they conduct themselves, the things that they do affect a lot of people. For example, Mark Zuckerberg, he hasn’t necessarily set out to create a particular persona of himself as a world changer, as a heavily influential person, but the fact that he controls Facebook means that when he says something, people listen.

HK; True.

NT; People like Tim, he’s got this track record of being right. People who have a track record of being right are easy to listen to, because chances for success are that whatever they say is going to come true. Tim is lucky, because his natural interest was classical literature, ancient Greek literature. He was a classics scholar in his youth and he’s really into telling stories and loves quotations. He loves to think. He thinks a lot. Then he’s really good at telling stories about the things he’s learned. It’s the telling of stories that helps him have such a big impact. But there are lots of people who give opinions or who try to give facts, but it’s the people who can tell stories that you go along with for more than just one fact or one opinion, would actually paint a picture of the future that you can believe in. Those are the people who can get a lot of people behind them. And Tim is one.

HK; I want to ask your opinion on what kind of change will happen to open source?

NT; Open source is going strong. I remember 15 years ago it was all just beginning, and there was very much the idea that people would use open source, because it’s free, and not free as in speech where there’s liberty and self-destiny, but free as in because it was cheap, because you were able to get software without having to pay for it. But people came for the price and staying for the features of the software, they discovered it was quicker to develop and more responsive to their needs, or they were able to change it to do the things that they wanted to do instead of being stuck with the needs of the vendor. And that arc that played out in software, where pretty much we’ve gone through that whole Ghandi lifecycle of first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

HK: Cool, I have to write that down to remind myself.

NT; They fought us after laughing at us, after ignoring us, and we won. Now, great, open source has legitimacy. Open source is a huge force to deal with.

What next? Well, applying those lessons to other fields is a big thing going on right now. People are talking about open government. What does that mean to you? Apply the open source principles to governance. There is open data. What does it mean to, instead of having source code, have databases? Can you apply the lessons of open source to databases? I think you can. And open source hardware, what does that mean? Which features of software do we want to preserve in hardware? What things of hardware are unique and need their own definition of open source to work? There are lots of interesting challenges outside of software.

But within software, one of the big challenges I see is a gradual dilution of the word. Open source was started as a brand to be something that was a bit friendlier to business than the free software of the Free Software Foundation. That’s GNU license, Richard Stallman type software. Richard Stallman’s a brilliant man who has done amazing things, he did not compromise. That’s one of the things that makes him fantastic. He did not ever compromise on his belief that, if you use software, you deserve to have the rights to change and redistribute that software, and to inspect the source code, and learn from it, give the source code to other people. Those are basic rights.

And Open Source was saying, well, it’s more about the right of the software creator, that if you want to give your users the rights, that’s great. If you want to keep some of those rights back, that’s fine too. There should be a basic set of rights that define open source and maybe you can get to the source code and you can redistribute it. But the precise details of the obligations of the GNU license, that’s not necessary for something to be open source. That basic difference between open source and free software, and how many rights the users have versus how many rights the software creators have, and the opportunity the creator has to profit from that software, that has persisted. It is the probably the biggest issue facing us right now, that you’re seeing people calling software open that doesn’t give the users very many rights and barely scrapes by under the definition of open. I’m thinking here about Web applications. The Web has provided a huge barrier to that free software foundation ideal of: if I use a piece of software, I can change and improve it. That’s not true of Google, even though a lot of Google is open source. It’s not true of many pieces of Web based software. And there some licenses attempting to address that, but I don’t know that we have all of the rights of the user taken care of in those licenses yet. That’s still an interesting area for exploration in the future.

HK; I want to ask you a very general question. As the development of technology, parts of our life are moving from the real world to the virtual world. Do you imagine that our real life will belong to the second life?

NT; The basic rule that I go by is that people don’t change. Software and their hardware will let people be people, maybe just more so or in different ways, but the nature of people isn’t changing. It’s just the opportunities they have to express themselves are changing. We have people falling in love over Facebook. We have people falling in love in Second Life. People fell in love over letter writing when the postal system was first created, and that was viewed as weird, and strange, and unusual in its day.

When I look at the future I don’t see the basic human nature changing in any way, shape or form. I just see new avenues for us to express our love, to follow things that interest us, to be creative and to work. If you look at the different things that we do in our lives, a lot of what we do online and what we do offline falls into those basic categories.

What is the world going to look like in 2020? Cell phones will be a whole heap smarter. When the first cell phones came out there were smart phones. I remember having a Nokia 3650 and realizing that it had basically the same computational power as a Commodore 64, which was my first computer. Now already we have, in the form of an iPhone or an iPad, one of those smarter android phones, an astonishingly sophisticated computer in the palm of our hands, and that’s only been in the space of, I’m guessing here, about seven years.

What will happen in the next ten years? Those things are going to get hugely smarter and faster. We’re going to get far more peripherals and connectivity into them. They’ll be able to interact with us in interesting ways. But I think the biggest thing is that internet of things is going to built up. Now, when you buy an iPhone, half of the delight of the iPhone, and I’m being generous with that half, is in the apps. But the other half of that delight, the real delight of an iPhone, is that it’s the Internet in your hand. No matter where you go you have all of the information accessible through the Internet in the palm of your hand. As the Internet gets smarter, that device is going to get smarter. As the Internet knows about traffic, as it knows more about whether, as it knows more about our friends and what they’re doing, the device in our hand is going to get smarter and change the way that we work.

The mobile phone has changed the way that we rendezvous at things like movie theaters. Rather than pick a place and a time, we say, approximately this time. You show up and you start texting each other to find where you are. And that fundamental change in how you meet people at a place, rather than saying a place and a time, you say a rough time and then you rendezvous by telephone, it’s a small but significant change in the way that we react. There’s less planning required, a lot more fluid now. I can be late and it’s not the end of the world. I can be early and it’s not the end of the world. That kind of stuff is great. It’s not momentous. It’s not: I’m an android and I’m surrounded by tiny nanobots that pick my teeth clean. It’s the future. There’s none of that bright, shining hover car and androids to do your laundry stuff that the science-fiction futures were based on. It’s a huge series of these tiny, little things that make our lives better.

HK; Hope technology will change the world for the better. As my research is on the law of success, can I ask your definition of success?

NT; Very good question. Success, for me, is what I can look back and feel happy about. It’s tricky, because success and failure go hand-in-hand. I think people often think of success and failure as things going the way you planned versus things not going the way you planned, that success is when you set out to do something and you got there, and failure is when you didn’t get there.

I have, in the last five years or so, really been working on my attitudes towards success and failure, that a failure is only a failure if you don’t learn from it. If I don’t get to where I set out to go, I might get to somewhere perfectly fine and interesting, and be good in that place, and that’s a success, as far as I’m concerned. The only true failure is when I set out to do something and at the end of the exercise I’ve learned nothing.

HK; That’s really a good point. The final question, I want to ask you your advice to be successful in general life?

NT; I’m thinking more here about successful in life rather than successful in business, because they’re not necessarily the same thing. A lot of what I do is take a bit of a stoic view and say that I’m not responsible for the way the world is on the outside, but I can change the way that I react to what happens to me, but I can’t change what happens to me. I noticed that people who feel unhappy, and feel unsuccessful, spend a lot of time fighting unsuccessfully their outside world, wasting their energy and mental effort on something that is not going to get them to a place where they will feel like they are successful. You can battle and battle that outside world and still not be successful. I think the ability to pick your battles, both mentally and practically, is the thing that will make you successful or unsuccessful.

Haegwan Kim
Haegwan Kim is a writer who was born in Osaka, Japan in 1989 and grew up near Tokyo where went to a Korean school for 12 years.
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