NO.3 ANOW PROFILE | JYRI ENGESTRÖM

“Do something that matters!”

In this episode Fred Weibull interviews the Finnish entrepreneur and sociologist Jyri Engeström.

Online and Real world Communities: Survival of our society

By emphasizing his sociological background Jyri (a recurring aspect in his narratives[1]) Jyri draws attention to his long-running interest and concern for communities, both online and off-line. Here he concerns himself with the long-term survival of societies, invoking a classical economic scarcity argument and suggesting a historical positive correlation between equality and long-term survival (c.f. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse (Diamond, 2005). He said:

“The societies that tend to survive more long-term are the ones where you have a community that is able to organize itself and anticipate long-term survival. If we look at our society today it is arguable that there are things that people are involved in, for example on the internet, that are comparable to digital versions of the Easter Island heads” (08:15-08:52).

Critique of Silicon Valley and Start-up Culture: Work on stuff that matters

Jyri suggest what should be done with the principle “work on stuff that matters”[2], an admonition attributable to Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly, 2009a, 2009b), Founder and CEO at O’Reilla Media. Three of the main principles O’Reilly outlined in a blog post in 2009 were

1.’Work on something that matters to you more than money.’

2.’Create more value than you capture.’

3.‘Take the long view.’ (O’Reilly, 2009b).

Jyri draws on this message and offers it to “Silicon Valley and Start-up Culture” as a basis for a critique, saying:

“Do something that matters. This is a criticism of Silicon Valley and Start-up Culture for not focussing its efforts on the things that make a difference for our long-term survival as a collective. What we need is for the current generation, who are studying, including at Hanken School of Economics is to really take that to heart.” (10.30-11.20).

The historical shift from a ‘Hacker Ethic’ to a ‘Start-Up Ethic’ and the ‘Boy-King’

In relation to this Jyri diagnoses the status of the contemporary tech world as entwined with what he names the “boy king” – a particular form of the figure of the entrepreneur. Reflecting on the developments in the past decade or so, Jyri suggests that there has been a shift from a ‘Hacker Ethic’ (Himanen, 2001) to a ‘Start-up Ethic’. The former involves, he says, “…an open source ideology, where computer code should be freely available, modifiable and different forms of copyright should apply to it through for example the Creative Commons framework where intellectual property is allowed to be shared more freely”. The ‘Hacker Ethic’ is “aligned”, Jyri suggests, with “a more equal, level platform, from which to go forward”. To Jyri the shift away from this ethic entails a cause for concern which potentially undermines O’Reilly’s suggested direction:

“I worry that ever since the rise of social platforms like Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat what started off as the Hacker Ethic… has been replaced by a ‘Startup ethic’… At some point, maybe in 2007, the Hacker Ethic went out of fashion and instead …it was replaced by the Entrepreneur, the “boy-king”, the young white guy in a hoodie, who’s a billionaire before he has graduated from school. For the last decade or so we have had a cohort of people growing up around those values. ” (11:22-13:40).

Jyri says that the main risk is that this fosters division and inequality in our societies.

There was an Academic/Intellectual presence on the Helsinki Entrepreneurial scene, 1995-2005

In the course of a decade entrepreneurship has come to approach a hegemonic status not only in business culture, but increasingly as part of that of mainstream society. Although a ‘Silicon Valleyfication’ might be a familiar story in most entrepreneurial centres around the world, the episode entertains the particular ‘scene’ of Helsinki. Around year 2000 technological promises drew together – perhaps somewhat conspicuously – creative people from the social sciences and humanities.

Jyri’s suggestion is that sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers were drawn to ‘tech’ because they saw in it a promise to bring about social change. The central watchword, according to Jyri, was to bring into reality an online “community”.

Jyri Engeström: Brief Background

Jyri Engeström is a Finnish Entrepreneur and sociologist. He founded the microblogging service Jaiku (sold to Google year) and the location-based social tool Ditto (subsequently bought by Groupon year).

Trained in sociology at the University of Helsinki, he pursued doctoral studies at the department of Organisation, Work and Technology at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS), UK. There, he was supervised by recognized sociologist Lucy Suchman and organisation scholar Frank Blackler. His doctoral research focused on the relationship between the social construction of technology (SCOT) and innovation in hi-tech corporations.

From the 1990s he has been an important figure and respected member of the Global tech scene. Jyri also a well-respected on global tech scene. During the early 2000s he brought interesting and acclaimed people together through talks, seminars and conferences through an organization called Aula.

As a contribution to re-building local communities during the summers he runs a café outside Helsinki called Kavila Siili (kahvilasiili.com). Together with Katerina Fake he also recently launched a new venture fund called Yes VC (Yes.vc). 

References / Topics of Discussion / Further Watching/Reading

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking Press.

Engeström, J. (2017, December 5). How to Be Happy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h30LklqU-xI

Himanen, P. (2001). The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. New York: Random House.

Loizos, C. (2018, January 24). Founders Caterina Fake and Jyri Engeström make it official with a new venture fund, Yes VC. Techcrunch. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2018/01/24/founders-caterina-fake-and-jyri-engestrom-make-it-official-with-a-new-venture-fund-yes-vc/?ncid=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TechCrunch%2FMattBurns+%28TechCrunch+%C2%BB+Matt+Burns%29

O’Reilly, T. (2009a). “Work on stuff that matters.” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hc7Z5gmwXOg

O’Reilly, T. (2009b). Work on Stuff that Matters: First Principles. Retrieved from http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/01/work-on-stuff-that-matters-fir.html

Footnotes:

[1] The importance of Jyri’s sociological background also notably transpired in an interview with TechCrunch, where his partner Katerina Fake commented: “Jyri and I both came from humanities backgrounds. We’re not engineers. We’re not CS people. I studied English Literature.” (Loizos, 2018)

[2] Engeström also invoked this point at a Talk at Slush, 2017 (Engeström, 2017).

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