Satya Nadella: Microsoft’s first futurist CEO

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I’ve been watching Microsoft’s make keynote speeches since before he assumed the role. He’s always been one of the more interesting speakers, reaching across the whole of culture to make his points.

But as much as I enjoy them, they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Colleagues in the tech press want them to be more product-led, more announcement-driven, full of flash and ending with the Apple-like “one more thing”. Why can’t he be more like Steve Jobs, they seem to say.

I can see their point. They’re there for the news story, not the bigger picture. But it’s the big picture Nadella is concentrating on. He’s running a massive company, one that touches billions of lives every day, with thousands of products and with services that don’t launch new products yearly, but often weekly.

For me the important thing is this: in his keynotes Nadella isn’t selling Microsoft. Instead he’s putting the company and its products in context, and in doing so, trying to set the tone for the industry as a whole. And in doing this, he has to become something different from his predecessors, Gates and Ballmer, he has to become a CEO.

Let’s step back for a moment, and look at the world forty or so years ago. Alvin Toffler, one of the first futurists, was writing a book about the world just around the corner, one where information technology was reshaping society faster and faster, and where the old power structures that had held the levers of society were being eroded by an ever faster, ever-growing stream of information. Mapping the effects of these changes on society, he coined a new term and used it as the title of his book: Future Shock.

We’ve lived in Toffler’s tomorrow for the last thirty years, as the internet has wrapped its web around our lives. And now we’re adding more to that world, building a hyperscale cloud to hold much of our compute and storage needs, linking it to an ever-smarter system of ubiquitous computing devices we’re embedding deep into our lives.

The future is rushing in on us, faster and faster. Alvin Toffler’s world is here, and it’s brought a bright light that’s reflecting off ideas and technologies, blinding us to their repercussions and social impacts.

One of my favourite novels is John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider. It’s a book about unexamined rapid progress, balancing it on the uncontrolled battering of future shock and on the humanistic use of technology that inspired the Whole Earth Catalog and the work of the associated Point Foundation. “We are as gods and might as well get good at it” was the strapline to the first Whole Earth Catalog, advertising access to tools and ideas.

It’s that motto that I think is close to the heart of what Nadella is talking about in his keynotes. He’s describing an approach to technology that doesn’t step back from its rapid progress, but instead seeks to direct it for the betterment of society as a whole. It’s the thinking behind programs like AI for Earth, AI for Accessibility, and AI for Humanitarian Action: taking the tools that come from the company’s research labs and handing them to students, to researchers, to the wider world with the expectation that they be used for good.

As an industry we’re driven by the lure of the shiny thing over the hill, that next new technology that’s bigger, better, and faster than what’s gone before. We reach for it without thinking, without pausing to think of the ramifications of any change it might bring. And then we let it free, without monitoring what it’s doing out there in the world, drawn on to the next big thing.

Nadella’s keynotes are considered, thoughtful homilies, drawn from the history of technology and the world of philosophy. They draw on decades of scholarship and research, in fields that we at our keyboards rarely touch upon. Those fields are as important as the latest JavaScript libraries, if not more so. It’s thinking that explains why chat apps have triggered riots, why social media has amplified social tensions: and why we haven’t noticed what we’ve done as an industry until it’s been too late.

We might not be able to fix the mess that social media has left behind, but we can prepare ourselves for the future that’s inexorably approaching, one where machine-learning technologies and enhanced automation change society as much as the agricultural and industrial revolutions. In The Shockwave Rider Brunner talks about the transition from an arms race to a brain race, building a world that’s wise, a transition that’s akin to the one our world is going through.

At the end of his novel Brunner puts it to a vote, a global plebiscite in the future. We’re at such a pivot point, a junction where one way is a surveillance state dystopia, with machine intelligence monitoring our every move, and the other where we can take these technologies and use them to build a better world. It’s a clear choice, but one that seems to be forgotten in the rush to build the new and the shiny. We’re on a path to take these technologies and build what Charles Stross calls the Panopticon Singularity, where everything is watching us, nudging us in ways that don’t make society any better.

By putting tech in context, Nadella is telling us we have this choice and that we need to make it, that we need to be considered in how we proceed and in what we do with our machines. His keynotes may not be flash, they may not be full of products. But they’re much more important than that, as they address the growing pains of an industry that’s coming out of its adolescence.

Microsoft is 43 years old. It’s one of the bedrocks of our industry, a company that’s been around long enough to seed a whole forest of spin-offs around its Seattle home. It can’t be a company that’s flash and shiny, as it’s embedded deeply into the processes that drive the modern world. And so Nadella, as its third CEO, is taking it into its third age, into its new role as the adult in the room, setting an example for the rest of the industry to follow.

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