Feisal Naqvi

That which works is good

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2017 at 11:46 am

Ten seconds. That’s how long it took Xiaodong Wu, a Chinese mixed martial arts fighter, to beat a bona-fide living legend tai chi master into submission. Watch the fight if you want on YouTube. It’s about as embarrassing as it sounds.

The point to note is that this is no longer the China of old. Yes, the Shaolin monks and their kung fu skills still rule the silver screen. But out in the real world, what wins is not Pai Mei’s five-point-palm exploding heart technique but hard-scrabble mongrel fighting styles which take the best from every discipline.

And it’s not only China and the world of combat which has changed. China is just the most prominent convert to the ethos of capitalism.

But what exactly is the ethos of capitalism? The belief that the invisible hand of a competitive market will guide society to the best of all possible worlds? Gordon Gekko’s famous phrase that “Greed is good”. Hedonism?

So far as I’m concerned, the essence of capitalism is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s famous observation that “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” In simple terms, that which works is good. Or to put it in desi terms, “chalti ka naam gaari”.

This week’s musings about the meaning of capitalism are prompted by ‘Chaos Monkeys’, a book written by a former Facebook employee called Anthony Garcia Marquez. The book is a chronicle of his time in the maelstrom of Silicon Valley.

To be more precise, the book is an account of about five years in the life of Mr Marquez, from 2008 to 2013, starting from his arrival in California and initial employment by an existing company, continuing on to his departure and founding of a new company, the sale of that new company to Twitter and then two years of employment by Facebook.

Before I explain why this book matters, let me first take a moment to deal with the naysayers lining up to tell me that a book about capitalism run amok in California is hardly relevant to the average Pakistan.

To begin with, you – the reader – are not an average Pakistani.

Pakistan has about 200 million people. At present, about 60 percent of them are optimistically considered to be literate. Out of those literate masses, perhaps a million read newspapers in English at least once a week (and that is fantastically optimistic, but bear with me). Out of those English readers, The News claims (cough, cough) a readership of around 120,000.

In short, if you are reading this column (via dead tree or electronically), you are presumptively educated, affluent and interested in Pakistan. Let me further presume that you are interested in the economic development of Pakistan. Hence my conclusion that you should read what Garcia has to say.

Here are the two things that you need to learn from ‘Chaos Monkeys’.

The first point is that Silicon Valley is now the world’s greatest marketplace for ideas. What I mean by that is two very different things. The first is that Silicon Valley is now where you go to find ideas. The second is that Silicon Valley is where you go to sell ideas.

Take a look at Marquez’s journey. After abandoning his quest for a physics PhD at Berkeley, he joined a company called Adchemy which was trying to figure out, like many other companies, how to make money via internet advertising. After two (largely wasted) years at Adchemy, Marquez and two fellow engineers came up with a new idea and put in a pitch for induction at Y Combinator, the premier startup incubator in Silicon Valley and, by definition, the rest of the world.

By the time Marquez and his cohort ‘graduated’ from Y Combinator, had polished their original rough idea into a saleable pitch, had investors lined up and had a working valuation of about $4 million.

Let’s rewind here a bit. Marquez and his two buddies were not the second coming of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the duo who founded Google. They had not been struck with Newtonesque levels of inspiration. They were just reasonably intelligent people who had lucked into the world’s greatest startup factory and who had then been driven enough to come up with a saleable product. And yet, within a few months of finishing at Y Combinator, they had an offer from Twitter to buy their product for $10 million.

Why doesn’t something like this happen in Pakistan?

Well, you might say, it does happen. Only less frequently.

The only problem with that answer is that it’s bogus. There is a difference between generating electricity via an understanding of electromagnetic theory and waiting to get hit by lightning. Pakistan gets hit by lightning every once in a while. But it doesn’t know how to make sparks fly on a regular basis.

The technical reasons for this sad situation are manifold, starting with the difficulty in creating ‘sweat equity’. But let’s leave the technical reasons aside for a while. The real reason why IT startups remain not just on the fringe in Pakistan, but on the fringes of the fringe, is because we still don’t really respect such entrepreneurs. Our economic wizards remain entranced by a world of five-year plans and miraculously profitable steel mills. They are the tai-chi masters of Pakistan. And they are getting whupped by the MMA fighters of the world.

Let me now get back to the second half of Marquez’s book – his time at Facebook. Remember how I mentioned that Pakistan has perhaps a million newspaper readers (in English). Well, Facebook has 25 million users in Pakistan. The question is: how did it get there?

The short answer is that the people at Facebook try everything that works and they try it maniacally. ‘Make an impact’. ‘Fortune favours the bold’. ‘Move fast and break things’. Those were the exhortations that Mark Zuckerberg had pasted all over the Facebook campus.

Here in Pakistan, we don’t have exhortations posted on our walls. But if we did, the most likely candidate for a national slogan would be the Noori song, “Hore vi neevan ho”.

This is a country obsessed with avoiding risk. We obsess and we obsess and we then obsess some more about the one theoretical option that might, just possibly, in some ideal world have produced an optimal result.

Unfortunately, the old saying that “the best is the enemy of the good” remains as true today as it was yesterday. If you know that tomorrow      you will be judged and possibly punished with reference to some theoretical ideal, you will not take any risks. Instead, you will lay out all your requirements for the ideal and entirely unrealistic result in triplicate and when no action is taken, you will report to your bureaucratic superiors that nothing could be done about the fact that nothing was done.

We cannot afford to continue this way. If we do not embrace risk and if we do not accept the occasional misfire, we will continue to inch along at the petty pace we have mastered. We will continue with our elegant tai chi. And we will continue getting hammered into submission within seconds.

This column appeared in The News on 31 May 2017.

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