Making the World Work Better: Q&A with authors and editor discussion

Making the World Work Better: The Ideas That Shaped a Century and a Company
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Making the World Work Better > Questions for Jeff O'Brien

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message 1: by Betsy (new) - added it

Betsy Schaefer | 12 comments Mod
Add questions for Jeff O'Brien to this thread.


message 2: by Betsy (new) - added it

Betsy Schaefer | 12 comments Mod
You open your chapter describing Mike May's incredible journey from blindness to sight. What did you learn from Mike that wasn't covered in his book?


message 3: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey O'Brien | 3 comments Thanks for the question, Betsy. I interviewed dozens of scientists, policy leaders, and executives while researching my essay. I could have opened with any number of accomplished "actors," but I chose to start (and end) with Mike, because while much of my essay discusses the tools and procedures used to manipulate complex systems, May's story helped establish an important point up top: All examples of making the world work better share one common element, us. It takes humans to incite progress, and we do so by following a common path that has a lot more to do with how we think than the tools we use. In fact, I'd contend that we invent the tools precisely to augment our ability to think -- to process information, for example, or to consider far-flung relationships and get to the root of cause and effect. So, Mike was my case in point. His story incorporates breathtaking scientific advances and amazing technologies, but its power is primarily derived from will, flexibility, and perseverance.

I stumbled upon Mike while thinking about the massive amounts of data being generated by everything from GPS and RFID to MRIs and space telescopes. It struck me that with this new awareness of our world, it was like we were beginning to see for the first time. What *is* it like to see for the first time? What is the process of seeing, and how is it different from merely looking? A few Web searches and phone calls later, and I was meeting Mike for coffee in San Francisco's financial district. I quickly learned that the experimental stem-cell procedure to restore his vision is just a small part of his tale. He's an accomplished inventor whose company, Sendero, builds speaking GPS units to help blind people navigate. He's a world-record holder and gold medalist in paralympic downhill skiing. He's a family man who has spent time with presidents and movie stars (including President Obama and Stevie Wonder), has been inducted into the Hall of Fame for the US Association of Blind Athletes while receiving numerous awards for developing technologies to benefit society, and just has a history of doing generally impressive things.

After the book came out, I was invited to give a speech at an IBM event in Maui and I asked Mike to come along. The audience was floored by his story and, I think, impressed as much as I am by his ability to continually reassess and re-chart his course. Again, this goes to the point about tweaking a complex system. No matter what technologies are available, no matter how carefully planned the actions, there will always be surprises. This is the nature of living in an inter-connected world of inter-dependent systems. Mike ran into all kinds of problems after the bandages were removed. Big picture (pun intended), things were good. For the first time since he was 3, he had vision. What's more, he didn't contract cancer or any of the other serious maladies often associated with taking massive doses of immuno-suppressant drugs. But the devils were in the details. He ended up stumbling off curbs, tripping down subway stair wells, and running up against all kinds of misconceptions about how the world operates. He was perpetually confused. Neuroscientists published papers using him as proof that the brain has limited plasticity beyond a certain age and declared that he'd never be able to see effectively. Rather than giving up and wearing an eye patch (or worse), he used the naysaying as motivation. He taught himself how to see effectively by incorporating sight in a different way than most of us do -- sight became a secondary or even tertiary input. He learned to consider the world anew, which is precisely what we need to do. And of course, I liked that he has a happy ending. My essay is nothing if not optimistic.

For anyone interested in hearing more about Mike, please visit his company's site, http://www.senderogroup.com, or read the book about him: http://senderogroup.com/mm/mikebook.htm


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