Further proof code is culture

At Lift09 Basile Zimerman showed how code is culture using a very striking example: he explained that our binary computers were unable to generate a solid artificial intelligence for Go, the chinese game that demands to think not in terms of 0 and 1, but in a ternary way. This stuck with me as an example of how much computers carry, deeply embedded, the culture of the people who invented them.

The recent row over the anti-muslim film released to the world under the first amendment is another example. Because YouTube is an american company, it carries in its genes the value system of that country, allowing anybody to say anything freely. It wouldn’t be legal in France and probably in several other countries to release such a movie.

In more general terms, the internet is a tool that carries a certain view of the world, and is more adapted to certain cultures. Americans have long developed a thicker skin than Europeans, living in a media landscape where anybody can say anything, even the saddest rants. The system was put into place long ago, people had centuries to adapt to it. And now it spreads to the greater world – without much warning.

I am not surprised so many have a hard time adapting. And I don’t want to get into the endless debate of which value system is better or worse. I’m saying that it is about time we realize code is culture, and that governments should have understood that a long time ago. Instead of trying to ban this or that site, the right answer would have been to develop alternative systems, functioning according to the local rules. And maybe expanding a certain view of the world to other places in case of success.

Innovation is not only a matter of survival for businesses: it is a political statement. The Chinese government understands that all too well, developing its own clones of YouTube and Twitter to keep control. Is it a good thing? It’s at least a sign they understand what it at stake, and in that sense are much smarter than many western governments.

Pricing the lack of innovation

How much do you lose by focusing on preserving what you already have instead of developing the future? I wish I had a definitive, indisputable answer. Every time I sit down with someone to talk about the importance of innovation, I lack the hard cold numbers that would make my argument stronger. I usually end up telling the story of Nokia, going from $300b to $10b valuation because of giving decision power to those making money today – rather than those creating the potential to make money tomorrow.

But there is no number that people can bring to their context, to help quantify the potential losses created by immobility. Could iTunes’ 30% fee be the number I am looking for?

Let’s look at the music and movie industry. Their market was clearly going digital fifteen years ago. People wanted downloads and ipods, but ignorance and resistance resulted in the certainty CDs could be forced down the throats of clients against their will. In parallel, Apple invented an ecosystem in line with market expectations. An ecosystem that should have been an industry initiative, or at least launched by one of the majors.

I think it’s fair to say that Steve Jobs made a living off the lack of vision from industry executives, going their way just enough to make them feel secure. Remember how iTunes started with DRM to keep the labels happy. But when the power shifted and money started to flow, DRM was removed. Apple adapted to the pace of the industry, found a way to keep clients happy through the transition, and ended up taking 30% of the pie. Not a bad deal really, for moving 0 and 1 around and making your hardware more attractive in the process…

So perhaps I have a number now. I can say “if you don’t innovate you will end up paying 30% of your turnover to someone else”. What numbers have you found?