In Praise of Incrementalism (It Depends)

It was a few months after I arrived in Silicon Valley when I posted the following on the Internet: 

Incrementalism is a winning strategy when you totally forget to stop.


It was counter to what I knew from my time in the research world as espoused to me that same month by my former boss and mentor Nicholas Negroponte:

“Incrementalism is the enemy of creativity.”


And so I began to wonder whether I should listen to the founder of the Media Lab and a card-carrying member of the Temple of Design? Or do I listen to the folks in Silicon Valley whizzing about in autonomous vehicles and annoying scooters? Fortunately, HR came to my rescue — well metaphorically and not directly. Because an HR leader had this habit of answering all of my tough questions with a smile and telling me compassionately that:

It depends.


So it depends. It depends upon what point you are at when seeking to disrupt an industry or when sustaining your leading position in the industry. When first starting out to disrupt an industry, you need to eschew incrementalism and seek the unusual and unsafe path. When leading an industry you need to incrementally hop forward faster than your competition. And if you’re lucky to be an industry leader and you have excess resources to re-invest in ways to disrupt yourself, then all might be well for you when you do so. But in all timings and all cases, there is no success that can be guaranteed and you need to rely on being lucky, or as the late General Douglas MacArthur once said:

“The best luck of all is the luck you make for yourself.”


[1] Twitter (2014)

[2] Twitter (2014)

[3] “New Design Religion”

[4] “Luck Trends”

US Patent 4,058,672 and Voice Prompting (1976)

I think that clause 25 is where the action’s at:

25. A packet-switched communications system in accordance with claim 16, further comprising: means controlled by said first and second processing means for generating audible voice prompting at selected terminal devices in response to stored data; and means for accessing said stored data. 

“The present invention comprises a data communications system for providing compatible communication between a plurality of data terminal devices at a plurality of locations utilizing communications at a plurality of switching sites, both packet-switching and store-and-forward switching, to insure maximum utilization of the transmission network. The present invention further comprises apparatus and method for implementing packet and message switched communication between dissimilar terminals having differing modes of operation, and in a particular embodiment between dissimilar facsimile machines. Data and facsimile messages are transmitted and received, digitized, temporarily stored at switching nodes in a communications network on a scheduled or priority basis, formatted into a system-wide compatible protocol at local data processing sites and subdivided into packets of message data and transmitted in such packets dynamically and independently through at least one switching center or node. The packets are then retransmitted on the network either to another switching node or processor at which point the packets are reassembled into the original message or a portion thereof, converted into a mode compatible with the characteristics of the receiving terminal, and coupled to such terminal.”

USPTO Abstract

Streams and Infinite Expressions

The great power to be use computationally responsibly was firmly indoctrinated in many of us early nerds via the seminal textbook by computer science pioneers Hal Abelson, Gerald Sussman, and Julie Sussman entitled “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.” This was the textbook for MIT’s introductory course (well-known for not teaching you any of the most professionally-useful languages). We all kind of begrudgingly took the course because it wasn’t going to get us the jobs that we really wanted, but no one I know who took the course ever regretted it in later life. Besides teaching us about the evils of GOTO and taking us down the strange path of recursion, Abelson and Sussman and Sussman aspired to teach the ideas behind computation and what bits and bytes could represent and mean at a higher level, instead of just the applications.

One idea that stayed with me is the concept of a kind of variable that could not just hold one number, but all the numbers in the universe. So on the one hand you can say,

X = 3

which means that X has the number three inside it. You can easily change X to a different number like 4.

X = 4

but that day in 1985, the MIT professors showed us how to put all of the numbers inside X like a magician (or wizard) might do with their top hat,

X = <all of the numbers>

and as if with a touch of the wand he declared a new variable to hold all of the even numbers in the world as simply,

Y = 2 * X

which you can read as multiplying 2 by all the numbers in the word. And then the subsequent elegance of declaring that to make all the odd numbers in the world simply add 1

Z = Y + 1

to sit at the computer console and hold onto X, Y, and Z — each of them like a little marble holding within themselves infinities of numbers. I can’t describe the feeling as anything other than magic. To hold something so LARGE—infinite, actually—in something so small felt impossible until that moment.

Related code in Scheme

Corbato and Daemons

MIT Professor Fernando Corbato: “Your explanation of the origin of the word daemon is correct in that my group began using the term around that time frame. However the acronym explanation is a new one on me. Our use of the word daemon was inspired by the Maxwell’s daemon of physics and thermodynamics. (My background is Physics.) Maxwell’s daemon was an imaginary agent which helped sort molecules of different speeds and worked tirelessly in the background. We fancifully began to use the word daemon to describe background processes which worked tirelessly to perform system chores. I found a very good explanation of all this online at:

Continue reading “Corbato and Daemons”

There are three kinds of design — but one is most important.

Published April 2, 2019 on Quartz

During my days at the MIT Media Lab and later as a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, I found that when working with startups and C-level folks at larger companies, the word “design” meant too many things. The first Design in Tech Report emerged from my desire to try to explain design’s impact on industry at all scales—but the question kept coming up about what “design” really meant.

Continue reading “There are three kinds of design — but one is most important.”

The Words “Computer” and “Computational” in 1895

via Century Dictionary (page 345) on

“One who computes; a reckoner; a calculator; specifically, one whose occupation is to make arithmetical calculations for mathematicians, astronomers, geodesists, etc. Also spelled computor.”
Continue reading “The Words “Computer” and “Computational” in 1895″