The Risky Business of Being Human

Back at the dawn of my career when I was traveling a lot, I was bemoaning having missed a flight somewhere when somebody told me that if I didn’t miss a flight now and again, I was spending too much time in airports. That seems quaint in our current age of TSA lines snaking through the airport and sitting for hours on taxi-ways at hub airports, but the sentiment is still relevant. Avoiding one thing might rush us into the arms of something even less desirable.

That’s not a concept that modern business, the digiraty, or society-at-large are particularly adept at recognizing much less being able to apply. Of course, a certain degree of risk aversion is an all too human tendency. There is, after all, a fine line between innovative and crazy. Being sensitive to risk helps keep us in a useful proximity to that line after we’ve crossed it. Being allergic to risk, on the other hand, usually prevents us from ever having the opportunity to consider where that boundary might be.

Risk and Innovation – Twins We’ve Tried to Separate
It’s somehow appropriate in this age of irony, that one of the holy grails of our time, innovation, comes cloaked in one of our worst nightmares, risk. We can sulk around all we want wondering why a hot chick like innovation wants to spend so much time with a loser like risk, but that’s the choice she’s made. They’re inseparable. Learning to live with risk is the price we pay for the company of innovation.

This seems particularly difficult for us digitarians to master. I don’t know if it’s a case of our risk muscles atrophying in the presence of digital or if we created digital to compensate for our already decaying risk management proficiency. I’d like to blame the boxes, but I’m suspicious this behavior predates digital, electricity, or even most technology.

Caveman Ug thought his brother, Og, was just plain nuts to run at that wooly mammoth and try to bring it down using just a stick with a little stone tied to end of it. About two seconds after the knapped flint spear pierced that tough hide and brought the wooly down, Ug was beginning to calculate how he might mass produce those sticks at a lower cost, arm a troop of Og mammoth hunters and open up a successful chain of Ug’s Mammoth Burger Barns. And just to piss off the inventors among us, Ug lived a long life with lots of kids while Og got trampled three weeks later when his second spear shattered against the flank of a mightily irritated wooly due to an unseen production flaw. No wonder we cling to the hope that we can somehow separate innovation and risk.

An Endangered Species – Risk
It doesn’t really matter if digital creates this behavior or is just a convenient foil for it. The end result is the same. When we try to replace management of risk with its elimination bad things happen. Ug had a good run with the Mammoth Burger Barns until Dr. Og-son discovered that inconvenient link between mammoth burgers and heart disease. That and cousin Ig’s low-fat Pterodactyl fillet pretty much did in the Burger Barns. After that, you didn’t have to hang out around Ug’s cave too long to hear him muttering how un-natural it was to use spears against things that flew instead of ran. “You watch. Ig will have spears raining down from the sky on our own heads before long!”

Any casual perusal of tech history makes it clear we get the dance between innovation and risk wrong as much as we get it right. Quick now, name five eagerly accepted 20th century miracles that we now believe to be deadly. Probably didn’t have think too long to come up that list. What turned those miracles bad? I don’t think it’s over simplifying to suggest that the men and women behind all those Franken-miracles got seduced by the innovation and left risk for others to discover and deal with.

They crossed over from innovative to crazy without ever seeing or even looking for the boundary. And we, society, consumers, individuals, happily ran along, the Franken-miracle makers on our shoulders until suddenly we found ourselves so deep in crazy land, we could barely see the border any more. Is it really so tough to eliminate a fatal drug like nicotine from our world of commerce? Does the food industry really crumble without toxic hydrogenated oils and other trans-fats? Apparently.

Perhaps because the Universe loves balance so much, running from risk inevitably involves running from innovation as well. The siren song of technology is that it will enable us to separate innovation from risk. Our ever more precise and controlled digital representations will eventually eliminate the need to encounter the tumbling dice of life in any form or fashion. At least until the power goes out.

And what happens then? When all our surrogate risk managers, all the remote video cameras, all the home security systems, automated on-line trading tools, programmed credit score monitors, and radon detectors in the basement all give that strangled bleep that is the last voice of a dieing power grid? What then? Will we suddenly be able to tolerate risk, mysteriously adept at managing its realization like an ancient kung fu master?

A World Without Risk? No Thanks.
In a kind of goofy way, we seem to recognize that the total elimination of risk from our lives is not a desirable end. Even as we’re wallowing in all the pseudo-security marketing of SUVs, gated communities, ubiquitous security cameras and the like, we gobbling up hyper-realistic slasher movies, “reality” T.V. and a host of other adrenalin-pumping simulations of risk. We’re constantly voting with our pocket books and business budgets for the wholesale elimination of risk, but like giddy teenagers driving through the bad side of town with our doors unlocked we’re also finding ways to take a chance, buying the next lottery ticket instead of that gallon of milk for our kid’s breakfast.

Perhaps at some deep level we understand that risk is the rudder and ballast of innovation. It gives direction and energy to our creativity, guiding us down out of the trees and upright onto our feet, into the village of exciting new strangers, and up the elevator to the 110th floor and the corner office. Yes, we’ll occasionally get the perversion of an Enron or junk bond traders that transfer all the risk to someone else while keeping all the rewards. However, the Universe does love balance and tends to smooth those things out over time, even if the timelines are immediately recognizable to the individuals involved.

The more effective among us see through that swaddled illusion of no risk to deal with whatever reality happens to pop up in front of us. The best technologists, and those that use our wares most effectively, recognize the connection between risk and survival, between the potential for loss and the discovery of new capabilities and resources. We turn to face risk, embracing it, managing it, and delivering the heart of innovation to an eager populace.

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