Thinking, Fast and SlowThis is about four books that changed the way I see the world in 2012.  Two were published this year and two are a little older.

Thinking, Fast and SlowDaniel Kahneman
Published: Oct 2011

My reaction on reading this book is that it ought to be required reading for entry into adulthood. Kahneman draws on a career of research to reveal how profoundly biased our thinking is even when we are confident of being unbiased. He suggests that the mind is made up of two different thinking systems: System 1 which is quick and dependent on intuition and the emotions; and, System 2 which is slower and uses reasoning and logic. Both systems have their flaws and he does a masterful job of illustrating the many ways in which we can be misled.

It is perhaps not a surprise that, given his experience of human bias, Kahneman is a fan of algorithms.  He argues that in many cases an algorithm will make more consistent decisions on average than humans will. He presents some compelling evidence for this across a range of fields. This is at odds with the work of Gary Klein whose research on the power of intuition was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell. Instead of belittling and undermining the work of Klein, he embraces their differences and embarks on a research collaboration with him that is detailed in Chapter 22: Expert Intuition: When Can We Trust It. In the end they recognise that their different conclusions were influenced by researching people in very different professional roles e.g. parole board members versus firefighters. It is a beautiful example of collegial respect leading to deeper insight.

This is a very sobering book.  It wasn’t completely new territory.  Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational was a great introduction to behavioural economics but the wealth of evidence presented in Thinking Fast and Slow is almost overwhelming.   The notion of System 1 versus System 2 thinking is also a very interesting and a more nuanced understanding of thinking than simply logic versus emotion.

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
Published: Mar 2012
I found Haidt’s multi-dimensional view of morality in The Righteous Mind very appealing.  Intuitively the notion that morals might be more like a sense of taste with more than one axe of exploration e.g bitter, sweet, salty, sour, etc.  rather than simply binary e.g. good vs. evil, is quite a compelling one.  It was particularly timely published in the run-up to the U.S. elections where it was possible to see morality battles every day in the news.  He suggests that the dimensions of morality fall along the following axes:

Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, giving them their “just desserts”.
Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgements in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)
Source: Wikipedia

Interestingly, Haidt comes to the same conclusion as Kahneman regarding the existence  of two different thinking systems in the brain.  He refers to them as  “seeing-that” and “reasoning-why” systems which is perhaps a little more intuitive than System 1 and System 2.

Haidt has attracted his share of critics but, right or wrong, I have found the notion of a moral matrix to be a very useful tool for looking at problems in a new light.  Take, for example, Open Source software.  There is a very interesting analysis of Open Source that can be made looking at the motivations for contributing to Open Source through the lens of Haidt’s moral matrix.

Further, this book also introduced me to the concept of group selection in evolutionary theory which in turn gave me new insights into the Beinhocker’s Origin of Wealth.  Once again looking at Open Source software, it is easy to understand the success of Open Source approaches through an evolutionary group selection lens.

Since reading it I have found that, once you start looking, you can start to see the morality matrix at play everywhere.  It’s not the only way of looking at an issue but I have found it often offers a perspective I would not have thought of otherwise.

Why Nations Fail

Why Nations Fail – Daron Acemoğlu & James Robinson
Published: Mar 2012
Why Nations Fail is another book that has provoked some controversy.  It could hardly fail to given the epic sweep of history that it covers and the retrospective coherence with which the authors fit historical narrative to their theory.

Once again, right or wrong, their theory is a very interesting one that has shed new light for me on challenges within the world of international development.  They argue that a country’s political and economic institutions need to be analysed together and that they can be broken down into two types.  There are “extractive” institutions in which a “small” group of individuals do their best to exploit their political and economic environment for maximum gain and to inhibit the sharing of wealth; and there are “inclusive” institutions which are broadly open and encourage participation.  They argue that inclusive states become wealthier over time and that extractive states, though they may experience short term growth, ultimately make countries poorer.

Given that their theory operates over generations, even hundreds of years, it is very hard to assess the validity of their theory as its predictive power will take some time to asses and even then political/economic systems are complex and, I think, resistant to this sort of sweeping analysis.

However, that doesn’t it make it any less fascinating a work.  Most interesting for me was the notion of trust and how important it was in an “inclusive” state to create the conditions where individuals do fear to invest their time and money in enterprises.  Land rights feature as a particular issue in the book and it made me think about the world of communication infrastructure and the digital domain in general.  I think there is an interesting analysis to be made of “inclusive” versus “extractive” digital infrastructures.  As another way of looking at the problem, I think the notion of “digital land rights”, being able to afford digital land, being confident that you can keep it, being sure of rights of way, etc is a metaphor worth exploring further.


Mindset – Carol Dweck
Published: Feb 2006

This is a slightly older book but I only discovered it in 2012. It is another book where the author divides the world into two categories: in this case the author divides people into those with a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset”.  To quote Dweck directly:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

I cannot emphasise enough how profound this book has been for me both as a professional and as a parent.  Her thesis is not especially complex and seems obvious in retrospect but then so many brilliant things do.  It has everything to do with how you understand failure.  If you see failure as a personal commentary on your abilities then it can be destructive and disabling.  By contrast, if you see failure as containing the ingredients for learning and growth, then failure can be an enabler.

Intellectually this is obvious but I have never really taken on board in a personal way until I read this book.  Her narrative style and many many examples from a variety of fields helped the idea to sink in.  It has helped me professionally.  As an entrepreneur, I am confronted with failure on a regular basis.  I have never liked rejection.  Who does?  MindSet helped me make a fairly profound internal shift to not judge myself every time an investor or customer said the dreaded word…. “No”.

Interestingly it has been just as useful as a parent.  As my kids struggle with developing mastery in a variety of domains from academics to sports, they run smack into the failure demon.  Mindset helped me help my boys think constructively about failure as a breadcrumb trail to success.  And with that I leave you with this profound piece of wisdom from the children’s classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Happy 2013.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data