Generation Flux: Danah Boyd

Our talk with danah boyd, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research. She studied at Brown, MIT Media Lab, and UC Berkeley, and was named "High Priestess of the Internet" by the Financial Times.

First of all, this isn't a typo: danah boyd doesn't use capital letters in her name. In fact, she had her name legally changed, in part to specify no capitals. She explains it all on her blog. She explains a lot of things there: her music tastes, her sexuality, her clothing tastes, and her love of technology. boyd majored in computer science at Brown, did graduate work at MIT, went to Burning Man, got a PhD at Berkeley, did work at Intel, Google, Nokia—and today, at Microsoft Research, is one of the world's foremost experts on the culture of technology. I met with her at New York University, where she teaches; she had a student with her when I arrived; Chris Poole, the founder of websites 4chan and Canvas, was waiting for her as I walked out.

boyd is authoritative and insightful. She's excited about what technology brings society, and anxious about how it will impact those left out by the changes—and how they will react. "There's a difference between the broadcast and networked worlds," she says. "Command and control and hierarchical structures are being disintegrated. Big companies are trying to make that slow down. They have massive internal structural issues."

"There are all kinds of reasons to be afraid of this economy," she continues. "Everything in the corporate world is set up for security, so you can get to the next review. People who are willing to be uncertain will be more likely to be able to move ahead. People ask me, Are you afraid you're going to get fired. That's the whole point: not to be afraid. That doesn't mean I want to get fired."

Younger people have an advantage in this shifting environment, she says. "Change in mindset is both temporal and lifestage: In your 20s, you don't have wide perspective, but you have great passion, and so you will race into situations without understanding the complications. Naivete is a value. The tech industry values it." On the other side, she notes, "as you get more perspective over time, you get more conservative, with a small c. You approach problem solving differently—less radical, guns blazing. Instability is part of the joy and fun of the young."

For everyone else, learning how to embrace instability is the challenge. "What do you do to get everyone engaged on this journey? We all have to learn new skills. Being able to live on one set of skills over a career is not realistic. Change is going to happen, not all of it good, in serious ways. Optimists look to all the excitement. Pessimists look to all that gets lost. They're both right. How you react depends on what you have to gain versus what you have to lose. Some are hoping they can duck and it will go away."

boyd points to Rupert Murdoch as a corporate leader who had (until recent troubles) been able to take advantage of change: "Murdoch thinks of it as surfing—not just surfing a wave, but preparing to surf the next wave. There will always be some business people who take risks for the rest of their lives. But I'm not sure society writ large can handle that kind of instability. All we want is certainty."

For big public companies that are measured on quarterly performance, she says, "long-term experiments are really hard, the pressures are antithetical. How do you engender risk and reward?" Many companies try to carve out space for special groups, she notes. "But internally that can provoke jealously and battles. If you try to innovate in a known space, you create turmoil among employees—and it usually blows up pretty badly."

Microsoft's motion-sensor Kinect came out of the company's research lab in Beijing, away from the company's day-to-day business, she notes. "There was a steel umbrella put over it, to keep out the rest of the organization. Then Microsoft Research threw Kinect over the wall to the Xbox group, which created their own steel umbrella to shield it. They added some scaffolding, but this was an innovation that was mostly done in-house. It can happen in a big company. Of course, this is entirely the reverse of the way Office/Windows development happens."

boyd argues that the best place "to create steel walls is in businesses outside your core cash cows. The role of a big company is to keep the cash cow rolling, and then build the new."

Big companies, she notes, can execute leverage and efficiency, "but efficiency has blessings and curses. Within a 1,000-person organization, not all are efficient. Plus, efficiency doesn't give you social gelling. Startups working 24-hour days is not efficient, but the process allows teams to gel and that then helps them get through the inevitable rocky times."

"Building new connections is a critical part of building a new economy," boyd says. "The American education system, as flawed as it is, is great for the creative class because of the way it mixes up networks."

"Any time there's a radical disruption, everyone rushes to reform a new power structure, to restabilize things. Some people win in this process and some people lose. Tech forces a disruption, but who gets to win? Maybe Steve Jobs is so embraced as a hero because we have this anxiety over control."

Generation Flux

The future of business is pure chaos. Here's how you can survive—and perhaps even thrive.

Also, read the full profiles.

danah boyd DJ Patil Baratunde Thurston Beth Comstock Pete Cashmore Raina Kumra Bob Greenberg

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5 Comments

  • Andrew Parfitt

    I would suggest that the supply side is likely to change much quicker than the demand side.  I would consider myself a flux worker as I worked as a successful Investment Consultant, gained a master's degree in Strategy and Marketing from a top school, speak several languages, worked for brands including Coca-Cola and Heineken International and have lived and worked across Europe, Asia and Africa.  Based on the article, one would expect to generate a little interest from employers but many are simply dazed and can't join the dots.  The capability to leverage the diverse skills and experiences of a highly dynamic labour market may become key in the future, but for now, many firms have some catching up to do.

  • Permalance

    I'd be excited on a full time microsoft salary too. There are legions of individuals who have worked on a freelance and permalance basis in the media and technology industries over the past 20 years.  For them  'flux' is not change and uncertainty has worked in favor of corporate hierarchies rather than dethroned them.  Just take a look at Boyd's CV: all corporate multinationals. It's not technology that is leaving people behind, it's corporate business practices.

  • Mateo Gutierrez

    I don't think I've read anything so utterly meaningless in the past 60 days ... well done ms boyd.

  • Rick Kennett

    I am normally not a pessimist but when it comes to 'Organizations' I have little hope they can reinvent themselves and adapt as rapidly as the environment they operate in. I think 
    danah boyd nailed it with "
    Any time there's a radical disruption, everyone rushes to reform a new power structure, to re-stabilize things." In other words, with significant change, there is a reorganization, a new org chart, and a renewed pursuit of stability, command, control and compliance. It seems to me that for as long as that org chart is in place, communicating power and position, the agility needed to adapt and succeed will be hampered by the organization itself. In spite of any enlightened rhetoric about change.

    Meritocracy and a network of deliverables (suppliers and consumers) provides a natural order. Step back and you might see the fractal. 

  • Thaddeus(Thad) Cummins

    Bravo Rick,

    dana may have forgotten that organizational thinkers from MIT have been around for a long time.  The Honda Accord was a product of MIT mind Demming.  Learning organizations were thoughtfully outlined by Senge in the 1990s.  The paradigm shift dana  outlines are old texts rejected decade after decade in favor of war profiteering and carpet bombing bankers who raise interest rates 500% to "thin the herd" of 'less' fit American Entrepreneurs.  Defense of established economics simply concentrate revenue streams and undermine democratic capitalism (see Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton). The inability of Corporate America to adjust their management philosophy since the assassination of JFK, MLK and Bobby has led to the decline of the US Auto industry resulting in the current Aries K Car economy of deflation we experience today.  New skills, getting everyone on board and dealing with instability begs the question, did dana experience recent US economic history.The only thing going for this Paradigm shift v. 3.0 is the Millennial generation is 75 million strong versus the GenXers 40 million that had no chance of affecting the 800 lb gorillas who labeled them "angsty".dana is signing to the choir but the argument for change involves more than shiny talk.  The majority of US wealth is stagnate and sitting on the sidelines in stale morgues called Banks and corporate accounts.  If the decision makers of the US Economy were as positive as dana, the US economy might get off the dime.  This would require access to capital and an appetite for failure as a learning exercise rather than a sacrificial lamb to the golden calves of Wall Street. Having 20 years of experience wrestling with the primates as a homo sapien I see no incentive large enough to push these corporate Visigoths in a new management direction in the short term.  Why would they?  They have more bananas than they can consume and socio-economic breeding rights.I do not write to be a downer.  I simply have been on the front lines long enough to recognize the same "Polly Anna" marching orders from a chain of command that has undermined the US Economy since 1980.  Bottom up change has been tried since at least WWI when troops reported to the Generals miles behind the line that business plans were not working.  The fact that the Iraq War lasted twice as long as WWI demonstrates the normalization of war profiteering as a the American economic model. This is why no change will come until business minds see business as a homo sapien process designed to improve the habitat of homo sapiens over the plutocratic primates more related to branch snapping gorillas than collaborative homo sapiens.(E.O.Wilson)Technology is a tool and not a management change.  The management philosophy behind the "tool of the day” is were the American Entrepreneurial renaissance will start if it ever does.  As long as the American Political Culture feeds the bad wolf, there is little the American Entrepreneur can do but listen to the Too Big to Fail/Too Small to Survive vampire squids who preside over the ever contracting economy we call Reaganomics.MBA growth since the Reagan Revolution appears to relate to ever lowering GDP. http://goo.gl/ZrFOT