Jeffrey M. Stibel: An interview by Bob Morris

Jeff Stibel OFFICIAL PHOTO in COLORJeff Stibel writes about the intersection of science, technology and the complex networks that influence people’s lives. He is the Chairman and CEO of The Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corporation and Chairman of BrainGate, as well as serves on boards for U.S.C., Brown, and Tufts University. Jeff publishes articles and books about networks and how they are established, increase in sophistication, and ultimately grow collective intelligence. While his academic and research background is primarily focused on the brain, Jeff’s area of focus includes other biological, technological, and economic networks. His books compare biological systems to the networks that humans have built across technology, economics, and business. His most recent books are Wired for Thought: How the Brain Is Shaping the Future of the Internet (Harvard Business Press, 2009), and, Breakpoint: Why the Web will Implode, Search will be Obsolete, and Everything Else you Need to Know about Technology Is in Your Brain (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013). He is also among the contributors to Management Tips: From Harvard Business Review (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

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Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Stibel: Leadership is more about listening than speaking; more about enabling than doing; more about empowering than power.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Stibel: Truth is a relative concept—the quest is the goal but knowledge can never be truly knowable and only the ignorant believe otherwise.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Stibel: Creativity is about applying old principles to new problems.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Stibel: Spend all of your energy on things worthwhile and none of your energy on anything else.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Stibel: I am a big proponent of failure. At my current company, we converted a plain white wall into a “failure wall,” where employees, partners, and guests can write down their mistakes and what they learned. When you succeed, you don’t always know why (usually it is luck). When you fail, you usually do know why, and you become wiser as a result. Fast failure is an important discipline.

Morris: Let’s shift our attention to Wired for Thought, published in 2009. When and why did you decide to write it?

Stibel: My academic area of focus is the brain, and my career focus has been the Internet and technology. During graduate school, I developed the thesis that the internet is a brain, and I wrote Wired for Thought to share my thoughts on the similarities between these biological and technological muscles, as well as what we could learn from each.

Morris: If there were a second edition to be published, to what extent would you update and/or revise the material? Please explain.

Stibel: The Internet is evolving so fast that Wired for Thought has a number of areas that could use revision and expansion. Even our knowledge of the brain has changed in the past few years. In a sense, my new book Breakpoint is a continuation of Wired for Thought. Breakpoint takes the original thesis that the Internet is a brain a step further, by demonstrating that technological networks in general behave like all biological networks.

Morris: In my review of the book for various websites, I indicate that I prefer a simile to a metaphor. That is, I think the Internet  resembles a brain rather than is one. Your own thoughts about this.

Stibel: I take a harder line than that and am willing to go the metaphor route. The Internet is structured similarly and does virtually the same things as the brain. Both the Internet and the brain serve three functions: information storage, calculation, and communication. Whether the Internet is like a brain or is a brain may be a matter of semantics but the important point is just how similar they really are. All that said, I never said a human brain, rather a brain. The Internet could be evolving into the capacity of a mouse brain or even a cat.

Morris: You assert, “The human brain is rather dumb.” Please explain.

Stibel: What I mean is that the brain is not terribly sophisticated. It is made of humble neurons that perform very simple tasks: for the most part, a neuron either turns on or off. But there are billions of them, connected to each other in a complex neural network. The brain takes these simple messages and combines them until they reach a level of true complexity: 300,021 firing neurons (neurons that are turned “on”) combined with 22,011 suppressed (“off”) neurons in one brain region can yield a sophisticated message – “Don’t forget to turn off the stove.” So the human brain is made up of carbon molecules just like the rest of us. It’s no “smarter” than the heart or the pancreas.

Morris: You say, “The history of technology is not really a history but an evolution – one machine supplanting another in a Darwinian race for dominance.” Do you see this as an endless process? Please explain.

Stibel: Yes, evolution is an endless process. All living species struggle for survival, and are successful by increasing in strength, variation, and efficiency. So it is with technology also.

Morris: “Just as human intelligence is a matter of creating and destroying memories and ideas, so is the Internet a machine that creates only to destroy.” This sounds like Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction.

Stibel: That’s exactly right. Schumpeter applied the idea to business and economics, but it applies equally to nature as well as the Internet. Darwin in fact echoed these thoughts in his great work during the 1800s about how species evolve.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Breakpoint. When and why did you decide to write it?

Stibel: Wired for Thought was about fundamentals of the brain applied to technology. After publishing that book, I learned more about the application of other biological networks to technology. Mother Nature has already solved so many of the challenges that we consider to be the domain of technology or engineering. The truth is, biology may have more to teach us about engineering than engineering itself. I wrote Breakpoint to expose the biological thesis.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned? Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Stibel: I was lucky to have editors at Palgrave McMillan who really understood the vision and purpose of the book, so the final product is not substantially different from my original thoughts. That said, I tend to go through hundreds of iterations before the final product is released so the final draft is often substantially different than my initial writing.

Morris: As I indicate in my review for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please respond to a few questions raised by a few of those passages. First, “Nature has a lesson for us if we care to listen: the fittest species are typically the smallest…The deadliest creature is the mosquito, not the lion. Bigger is rarely better in the long run. What is missing — what everyone is missing — is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s  time.” (Page 6) Please explain.

Stibel: One of the revelations of the book is that despite the size of the individual organism, highly networked species (bees, ants, termites) tend to be highly successful and surprisingly capable of solving a wide range of problems. We measure companies by how big they are, and we make the same mistake in nature – we are fascinated by the T-Rex and the Great White. But what we should be more impressed by is those businesses and living things that have stood the test of time. By this measure, both biological and technological networks are impressive.

Morris: “There are three phases to any successful network: first, the network grows and grows exponentially; second, the network hits a breakpoint, where it overshoots itself and overgrows to a point where it must decline, either slightly or substantially; finally, the network hits equilibrium and grows only in the cerebral sense, in quality rather than quantity.” (18) Of the three, which phase seems to be the most difficult to complete? Why?

Stibel: Without question, the growth phase is the most difficult. Biologically, very few variations in nature survive long enough to grow and thrive. In business, most networks never make it to the top of the growth phase. They don’t expand to fill the market’s capacity, and therefore leave room for competitors to swoop in. For every MySpace and that collapsed after breakpoint, there are hundreds of others that never even took off.

Morris: That said, breakpoints offer opportunities for Schumpeter’s aforementioned concept, characterized as “creative destruction.” In business, that could be a successful turnaround achieved by vigorous elimination of waste, non-essentials, clarification of focus, and in the human brain, that could involve the elimination of neurons. To what extent (if any) has your thinking about breakpoints been influenced by Schumpeter?

Stibel: While his thoughts were revolutionary in context, Schumpeter’s concepts of creative destruction are really just another way of talking about evolution. As I mentioned earlier, creative destruction is a core tenant of nature selection. The old must die to make way for more fit variations. It’s a fundamental rule of nature. The most interesting part to me is that humans often feel that the rules of nature don’t apply to technology, so we reinvent the wheel. Mother Nature is the ultimate creative destroyer, and we’re part of nature, as are our businesses, technologies, and economies.

Morris: “With so much focus on growth, few people have seen what happens to networks in the long term. Growth is necessary when oxygen remains, but once it runs out, you have hit the breakpoint. At this stage, the carrying capacity has been consumed and the market is dominated. It is then, when it is almost impossible for formidable competition to arise, that there is an opportunity for a network to become a business. A network past its breakpoint is like a sea squirt who has found his lasting rock home; its time to reap the rewards and eat the brain.” (133) Please explain the sea squirt metaphor.

Stibel: An animal’s first goal is survival, and efficiency is fundamental to survival. Sea squirts are nothing if not efficient. They need their brains for one thing: to find a home. Once they find a rock, they attach themselves to that spot where they will stay for the remainder of their lives. They then absorb their own brains to increase efficiency (they require fewer calories without a brain than with and have no other need for it). The point of the example is that there is nothing special—or even necessarily important—about the brain. Sometimes it is more nutritious than it is advantageous. Similarly, a network past breakpoint doesn’t have to keep struggling to grow. Instead, it should do everything it can to slow growth and increase efficiency. Cut out any superfluous appendages and enjoy the rewards of a fully-grown, balanced network. The struggle is over, just like for sea squirts.

Morris: “With animal intelligence as well as artificial intelligence, we keep changing the goalposts [goal lines?]. We draw a line in the sand, we reach that line, and then we cross it out and draw a new line further down. Events leading toward artificial intelligence have been happening for hundreds of years, but there is no one big event that will happen to generate the headline ‘singularity is here.’ We have already reached a singularity, and will never reach a singularity. The inevitable conclusion may elude us, but it is no less a fact: artificial intelligence is real, it’s here, and it will continue to evolve.” (177) Please explain the references to “singularity,” something we have already reached, and yet will never reach.

Stibel: John von Neumann coined the term “singularity” (popularized recently by Ray Kurzweil) to refer to the point in time when machines gain human-like intelligence. The point I am making is we cannot hope to recognize the singularity when it appears, as humans are notoriously bad at recognizing intelligence. In fact, I believe that artificial intelligence already exists, and will only get stronger.

Morris: “Not only are networks vital to our success, they’re vital to intelligence. Post-breakpoint, networks are much, much more intelligent than any individual member of the network. It’s true for humans as much as for other species, and it’s similarly true for technological networks. After all, our technology networks — the internet, web, Facebook — are just tools to further connect our human network.” (185) Presumably you agree with Tim (Brown, president and CEO of IDEO): “The collective intelligence, experience, and creativity of the group is greater than that of any individual.” Is this especially true insofar as innovation is concerned? Please explain.

Stibel: Tim Brown is certainly correct. Collectively, mankind has achieved astounding feats, and no one person could have done any of them alone. I love Leonard Read’s argument, one that I recount in Breakpoint, that there is no human on earth who even knows how to create something as simple as a pencil. Our human network is capable of doing things that no one person can even conceive. This is also true of ants, bees, and termites. Termites cannot conceptualize “temperature,” yet termite colonies have devised a way of air conditioning their nests. This is the most astounding property of networks.

Morris: “The network revolution has changed the game permanently, and this is just the beginning. What is to come will be more exciting than ever. Technology is on the verge of creating the types of things habitually reserved for human consciousness, intelligence, and emotion. The future will be limited only by the limits of the greatest imaginations of our technological and biological networks.” (188) For those involved, will it not also be constrained by limits that are self-imposed? Please explain.

Stibel: When it comes to creating human-like consciousness and intelligence, there will always be those in favor of restraint. To be sure, we’re talking about unprecedented capabilities and there are many who would seek to limit our exposure to what we don’t know. But I’m an optimist, and I’m more excited about these prospects than wary of them.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read your two books and is now determined to improve growth management capabilities at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Stibel: Treat your enterprise as a network and begin with the three phases. In the beginning, growth must be pursued at all costs, which means removing any and all barriers to gaining more customers and taking more market share. Once a company owns its market and thereby hits a breakpoint, it must put growth aside and focus on quality and gaining in terms of monetization.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in the two books, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Stibel: The idea of strengthening your network is more vital to small businesses than large ones, and it can actually create a competitive differentiator. Remember, bigger is not better when it comes to networks so small businesses can create better networks than their larger competitors. The connections between small businesses and their customers, partners, and supplies are often stronger and more tightly knit, which gives small businesses a unique opportunity. The point is to cultivate those relationships locally in a way that a larger company never could do.

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Jeff cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Breakpoint link

Wired for Thought link

Dun & Bradstreet link

strong>Breakpoint/Twitter link

Jeff’s Twitter link

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