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Social Hacking, with Josh Klein

Life-long expert on the use of hacking and innovation to create and solve social systems and industries, Josh Klein has served as a consultant on innovation and cyber security to the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the State Department, as well as Microsoft, Oracle, AT&T, and many others. He is also the celebrated author of Roo’d, Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results, and Reputation Economics: Why Who You Know Is Worth More Than What You Have.

When we can hack any living thing’s genetic code – and make those changes inheritable with technologies like CRISPR – our track record for tampering with ecological systems takes on a startlingly more sinister cast.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the most important future technology trends you seen emerging in the next five to ten years?

KLEIN:

  1. Genetic Engineering
    When we can hack any living thing’s genetic code – and make those changes inheritable with technologies like CRISPR – our track record for tampering with ecological systems takes on a startlingly more sinister cast.

  2. Strong Cryptography
    The divide between governmental and public (and to a degree by extension, corporate) interests has finally surfaced, and platforms like Facebook and Twitter are suddenly launching widespread strong encryption to protect privacy. Suddenly, mathematics is being pitted against public policy, with technology as the evolutionary mechanism for the former. The result could be a dramatic reconfiguration of everything from global finance to geopolitical politics.

  3. AI, the current technology investment darling
    Most people don’t understand what AI is or how its human-seeming elements are fooling us into treating it as an oracle. Data is a reflection of the people who collect and interpret it, but AI is giving us free license to call this interpretation – in all its flaws and ill-considered implementations – “truth”.

  4. Scope and Scale
    In the next 5-15 years the Internet will grow 200%, populated mostly by people who today have no access to it at all. The black market is expanding to be the biggest platform for exchange in the world within that same time frame. Meanwhile, new technical methods for commerce and encryption are being deployed and developed at an unprecedented rate. All of these trends are possible due to the scope and scaling affects of the Internet, and all stand to radically disrupt the existing world order.

SPEAKING.COM: What are “social hacks” and would you please provide a few examples of them?

KLEIN: Googling someone before you meet them is a social hack. Bringing up a topic you know someone is interested in is a social hack. Basically anything you do to strategically prepare or optimize your interaction with someone is a social hack. It doesn’t sound nearly so interesting now, does it? However, social hacks – especially those abetted by technology – are such a massive edge, it’s impossible to overstate how much more effective you can be by using them.

SPEAKING.COM: Which of your hack(s) have you found the most challenging and rewarding?

KLEIN: Changing people’s behavior – particularly when it results in them treating one another better – is such a Sisyphean endeavor in which success is always a little miraculous, yet doing exactly that is one of the biggest upside potentials to modern technology.

At the same time, sometimes it’s the simple things that really stick with you: for instance, my nagbot – a very basic script that drops a drafted email into my inbox so I can quickly follow up with anyone that hasn’t responded to me in a week’s time. It’s throwaway code anyone could have written in under ten minutes, and yet it’s been one of my most effective tools for managing projects and getting things done.

Being a hacker today is like being a 5-year-old with an all-access pass to the Lego factory; there are more tools and toys than you could ever play with.

SPEAKING.COM: What are your main sources of inspiration for your hacks?

KLEIN: While historic inventions, like the printing press or antibiotics, always encourage me, it’s really just a matter of seeing a problem in a new light and realizing that you have the tools to tackle it in a better way. Being a hacker today is like being a 5-year-old with an all-access pass to the Lego factory; there are more tools and toys than you could ever play with. It’s just a matter of picking what would be the most fun!

SPEAKING.COM: Who are “benevolent hackers?”

KLEIN: Hackers who want to create a net positive result from their efforts – as opposed to just destroying something because you can. In my humble opinion, most of the really talented hackers fall into this category. It’s mostly angry script kiddies and organized crime/governments who give black-hat hacking a bad name.

SPEAKING.COM: It seems humankind has been hacking for centuries. Are there some unique examples of historical hacks you could share?

KLEIN: One of my favorites is Turing’s hack of the German Enigma cryptography system in World War II. That basically won the war; it came down to being very, very clever about understanding the constraints of the systems in question.

If you think you could give – and thereby receive – more value, then you’ve got something to improve.

SPEAKING.COM: In your book, Reputation Economics, you say, “The value of individual reputation is already radically changing the way business is done.” How does someone evaluate his or her “individual reputation?” And what are some ways of growing individual reputation?

KLEIN: For better or worse, reputation is made across multiple contexts and is evaluated differently by every person for each context. In other words, it’s not a single, easily evaluated number, but you can evaluate where you stand by just thinking through how much value you get from your network. If you think you could give – and thereby receive – more value, then you’ve got something to improve.

SPEAKING.COM: Do you see any dangers/threats to society and the use of “reputation economics?” And, if so, how can we avoid them?

KLEIN: Human beings evolved to use reputation economics – which are really just multiple kinds of currencies valued across multiple contexts – so it’s actually very intuitive. The problem arises in our use of technology to accelerate them. AI in particular is frightening as it legitimizes algorithmic evaluations of value and presents them as literally true human judgments. To make that more concrete, it’s as though Friendster suddenly became the equivalent of your bank account.

Companies have rules and procedures to mitigate risk, but sometimes that risk is necessary in order to advance.

SPEAKING.COM: Would you share some of the ways that hacking can be used as a solution to combat senseless procedures and rules people are forced to endure in the office?

KLEIN: Increasingly big organizations are falling down in the face of smaller, more nimble competitors. They’re starving for creative solutions that generate learning and innovation.

Hacking serves as a quick and effective way of suggesting alternatives, be it by trialling slack with a small team on a single project, or asking a vendor to donate a product in exchange for feedback.

Companies have rules and procedures to mitigate risk, but sometimes that risk is necessary in order to advance. Hacking – when done correctly – can simultaneously limit that risk, produce strategically valuable insights, and help the organization leapfrog past choke points that its procedures and rules were inadvertently presenting.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some ways employees can hack their work to improve customer service and productivity?

KLEIN: There are countless ways!! Start by writing down everything that hurts about your work, and then brainstorm creative solutions that not only fix the problem, but also benefit the company. Then get buy-in and hack away! The result is almost always a career booster; in fact, most bosses reward employees who proactively benefit the company.

SPEAKING.COM: What is “Synanthropy” and how can it be used for the benefit of human society?

KLEIN: Synanthropy is when a species lives near, and benefits from, an association with humans and their habitats. Right now we’re letting this happen ad hoc, which is essentially forcing animals like cockroaches, rats, raccoons, deer, etc. to evolve for parasitism. I believe that if we put a little effort into it, we can encourage evolution for symbiosis instead – a relationship in which BOTH species benefit.

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  • Josh Klein “Josh Klein is the quintessential hacker – a cross-disciplinary, pattern recognizing polymath who takes his greatest joy from combining the unexpected and seeing the result work in new and better ways.” Josh Klein is a passionate hacker of all things. He examines systems, he takes them apart, and he puts different pieces together to produce ... more


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