Black swans are outliers.
At least that is what everyone thought in Europe, when all swans were assumed to be “snow white.”
By the 18th century, Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh landed in Australia, discovered black swans and altered the science of zoology. After the fact it seemed obvious to armchair scientists that black swans had to exist. Making the impossible, possible. But even the other furry genetic mutations (boxing kangaroos, duck billed platypus and teddy-bear koalas) that were discovered had to roll their eyes at such ludic fallacy.
According to Wall Street derivatives legend, Nassim Taleb, “black swans” are wildly unpredictable human events that occur when we least expect them. Like 9/11 and the rise of the PC, internet and Google, they cannot be predicted based on what we know no matter how much we rewrite our ignorance in the past to suit a predictable future.
For example, in the “hood”, black swans are quite common. Ask the homeless.
They are the albino pigeons that leave exploding surprises on windshields and pedestrian heads. They fight for bread scraps outside restaurants and pose with statues for picture-taking tourists.
They are also the iPads and cellphones the homeless use as vital links to friends, employment opportunities and housing to build a light-tunnel out of isolation and despair. Who would have thought the new wave of digital technologies – cloud, Big Data, social, mobile, 3D printing, the Internet Of Things – intended for commercial enterprises and paying consumers, could launch a flock of black swans to help the poor?
As bizarre a juxtaposition as it seems, access to digital technology from smart watches to Wifi is like drinking water for the disenfranchised in poor communities. Technology allows them to defy the physics and social stigma of an address or zip code. Less status symbol and more survival apparatus, these cheap communication technologies are like feet kicking down the fourth wall to the theater of their lives; where they can fully engage and contribute to the conversation on Facebook and Snapchat.
Other attempts have been made to tackle the challenges of education, computer literacy and speedy Internet access, unleashing potential black swan surprises. Bill Gates issued the Reinvent the Toilet challenge to bring sanitation solutions to 2.5 billion people in the world. The contest engendered ideas like solar-powered electronic toilets to a prototype that helps recharge mobile phones from urine.
Google launched Google Fiber to cover the last mile into the “hood” and stimulate more high speed broadband adoption and innovation across the digital divide. Additionally, they devised Project Loon, bringing internet access to rural and remote geographies with floating balloons in the sky (inspiring the imaginations of UFO conspiracy theorists, http://bit.ly/1GFIa8U).
In all these use-cases, when we concentrate on things we already know and fail to take into consideration what we don’t know, a black swan surprise hits us with its wing, beak or tail. We tend to put on rose-tinted blinders to the impact of randomness and fail to appreciate the imperfection in our perception of events. Yet reality is not linear math; it is a complex bending mosaic of ones and zeroes swiped with the pads of our fingers, whose rising and falling patterns find comfort in the cumulative effect of a handful of shocks.
Count the game-changing events, the technological advances and inventions that you have witnessed in your lifetime; and compare them to what was there before. How many of them came on the schedule of a toaster?
The mother of invention is need and there is greatest need in poor U.S. inner city communities. Although we like to simplify, narrate, and categorize, and remain cynical about rewarding those who can imagine the “impossible, I predict the next black swan technology will come from these communities. It is already there, waiting to be discovered.