Jerry Michalski: “It takes a lot of trust to engage in the world bringing it an uncomfortable message”

He is the founder of Open Global Mind, a project to help humans make better decisions together. Jerry was on the front lines of the tech revolution for a dozen years, as a tech-industry trends analyst, during the dot-com boom, writing the newsletter Release 1.0. He also advised corporate advanced-technology groups on whether and where to deploy exponential technologies like machine intelligence.

One of the 4,000-plus startups Jerry interviewed had a useful mind-mapping app called

TheBrain. Intrigued, Jerry began curating his Brain then, 22 years ago. Now it’s the world’s largest. In the mid-90s, he realized the word “consumer” was a linchpin to understanding many of today’s dilemmas. Following “consumer” led him to the concept of trust, specifically the many ways that consumer capitalism has broken trust. More optimistically, he also found groups around the world rediscovering trust to solve thorny problems. From this mix of movements and ideas, Jerry is creating Design from Trust, a process that can be applied in many different domains.

As Jerry Michalski was one of the speakers at Unfinished 2020, I had the chance to interview him and discovered a very open and interesting person that has a lot to share to the world.

an interview by Romanita Oprea #reinventyourself #reinventyourbusiness

What was the most important decision you took for your profession and why?

In the 1990s, when I was a technology trends analyst, I realized that I did not like the word “consumer.” It was a big insight for me, and when I mentioned it to my boss at the time, she said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a term of art in the advertising business.” But my inner voice told me that calling people consumers was part of a much larger problem, a problem I have been feeding on ever since. Turning that into advice, I would say: when you hit something that rubs you the wrong way, pay attention. It is probably a sign of something that really needs fixing. Children have great radar for this, until we train them to accept all the things that are broken in our world as normal.

What about the best piece of advice you received?

See the world as it is. Be skeptical, without being a doomsayer. Ignore the shiny wrappers and the big reputations. They usually don’t match what is inside the package.

Where did you find the inspiration for Open Global Mind and what were your first hopes and wishes from the project?

I’ve had the unique and wonderful experience of curating one mind map for 22 years. Unfortunately, that mind map software was created by a company that hasn’t ever followed my advice. So Open Global Mind started as an attempt to create an open, collaborative version of TheBrain. Then I realized that TheBrain is just one of many different kinds of visualization. Then I had the further realization that the best, most logical argument will fail if the other party has to renounce membership in their tribe to accept your argument. So, there’s a big piece of OGM that is about dialog, storytelling, facilitation, vulnerability and presencing, and has little to do with technology.

My most optimistic wishes for the project are that OGM helps us reconcile the enormous political divides we have worldwide right now, and that it helps invent the next medium that we take for granted, as today we do with books, websites, tweets, movies and TikTok videos. How we make sense of the world together.

How did it develop in time?

Right as pandemic lockdown started, I described the OGM vision to the founder of a small consultancy called Collective Next, who understood it very deeply, and decided to pitch in with me to help turn it into something. So, we opened up a conversation and invited intelligent people in who would like to see something like this exist. We are now busy building the thing as we fly it.

How do you intend to make sense of the world – together?

Today we are drowning in the information flood. Every year it seems one or two new platforms come out: one year it’s Instagram and Pinterest, the next it’s Snapchat and TikTok, all of which merely add to the volume of things that we have to process. What’s tragic is that we have no good place to put the really useful nuggets that we would like to remember. My Brain gave me a place to put those nuggets, so I can not only find them again, but also express them to other people, and make them useful for others. What if more of us were doing that? We might then piece together arguments for different points of view, experiments and their associated evidence, policy directives, wishes for a better future, and more. That might be a great leap forward toward making sense together.

How did you rediscover the trust and what are you doing differently ever since?

Hard to answer. What happened is that I began to understand some of the subtleties of trust, and its connections to everything around us. In particular, I had an awakening that our institutions are mostly designed from mistrust of the average person, and that this assumption has hurt humanity. That insight gave me a new filter through which to view the world around me, which is what I do differently now. I feel I see breaches of trust in many more places, for example in the domain of advertising, which has become stalking, and I also see many ways to reform systems, starting with an assumption of good faith.

Whom do you trust and why?

This will sound strange, but I trust President Trump. I trust that he will try his utmost to break norms, own the news cycle, favor his own interests and lie as often as he needs to shatter proper discourse and decision making. If that sounds extreme, consider Dr. Evil. You can trust that he will try to kill Austin Powers, but you can also trust his incompetence, so Powers will live to spy again… and alas, not make any more movies.

On the positive side, I trust people whose reasoning is visible, and is congruent with their actions. If you can articulate your theory of change, then take actions consistent with that theory, it gives me a way to understand what you’re up to and to engage with you if I disagree. I wish more people were transparent and visible with their reasoning, even as I believe that in many cases (most cases?), we create reasons after we have taken actions, as ways of justifying our actions.

What is more important to you – trust or creativity and why?

This feels like a weak competition of abstract ideas that have interesting relationships. For example, if you trust yourself, you are more likely to come up with creative ideas. Sometimes true creativity runs against current norms and feels uncomfortable to others. It takes a lot of trust to engage in the world bringing it an uncomfortable message.

How do you believe that technology and design will help the world become a better place?

Technology is a two-edged sword, as I said in my Unfinished talk. The same features and functions that enable the Stalker Economy can also lead us to Fully Automated Luxury Communism, one version of the fantasy leisure existence we were promised long ago, as a way of justifying automation. The difference between the two paths is our intention, and that intention is shaped by our beliefs about the world, particularly about other people.

We’re seeing right now a great deal of controversy about the role of social media in our lives. Platforms that appeared innocent have turned out to be great levers for manipulating public opinion, for example. We need to sort this out.

How was it to be in the front lines of the tech revolution?

Delightful. I’m old enough that I once had to learn how to run a card-punch machine and feed the cards through an IBM Mainframe, yet today I have a little slab of Unobtainium in my pocket that can connect me at zero marginal cost with almost anyone on Earth. All in one lifetime. And I know personally many of the people that I see in the headlines. For example, I’m Twitter user number 509. That means I was a 509th person to sign up for the service. So being up close has been exhilarating.

What would you say are the tech-industry trends at this moment?

Tech has eaten our lives, so there are many trends that matter. One I just mentioned, the role of social media, is completely related to the role of advertising and that Stalker Economy we’re in. Another is the role of surveillance and machine learning, which combined can take us straight into the darkest scenarios of Big Brother that any science fiction author has ever envisioned. Used properly, alongside some changes in legal structures and ownership structures, technology can lead us into a world of abundance, well-being and prosperity. But right now, too much of this technology is being designed by white men, inside the framework of consumer mass-market capitalism.

How has the pandemic changed you and your business plans?

My wife and I are both self-employed and accustomed to virtual work, so the main thing we miss is the travel. We both enjoyed a visit to Bucharest a few years ago, and I would have loved to be part of Unfinished in person.

My two passions are trust and collective decision making, both of which seem to be in more demand now, because the pandemic has exposed the low levels of trust and competence of too many governments around the world, mine near the top of the list.

How changed do you believe the business world will still be after the pandemic is over? Why?

Many sectors of the economy will be shattered and will have a difficult time coming back, like travel and tourism. Many people on the margins will be pushed into hardship. Of course, some of these effects are global, and some of them are national. Some countries are back to mask-wearing normal already, more or less, something we can only marvel at from the U.S.

Higher education will be broken deeply, since many colleges will not survive the pandemic. As renters can’t pay rents and landlords can’t pay their banks, there will be secondary shock waves through the world’s economies that will take a long time to recover from.

Also, many things which were changing slowly, like remote work/telecommuting, are now suddenly the norm. Kids and parents have seen how broken their educational systems are, and are experimenting with new ways to learn. Those are good trends.

How did you end up knowing about TheBrain (the human brain) and how has that impacted your life and career?

I was a technology trends analyst for a dozen years, through the 1990s, and TheBrain was one of som 4000 companies that pitched me their wares. It was the one that stuck. I could not have predicted then that I would still be using TheBrain 23 years later (this December will be that milestone), or that I would still be curating the same mind map that I started back then.

TheBrain has been, first, an invaluable memory aid. I can use it to find companies that Google no longer remembers, to see all the best articles about Basic Income Guarantee experiments or Regenerative Agriculture around the world, and much more.

But more importantly, curating a memory for this long taught me that we are an amnesic civilization. We are stupider than we normally would be, because we’ve been treated as mere consumers for at least half a century, and we have almost no tools for sharing what we know in a persistent way. Instead, we are drowning in the information flood.

Where do you keep the URLs of stories and videos that you love? Most people have given up storing them, so they forget them. This matters a lot, if we are to make sense of the world together, including our disagreements, and make better decisions over time.

If you were to go back in time, would you change anything? Why?

I assume you mean in my life, because if you mean across history, there are so many interesting places to intervene…

This may sound strange, but I would convince my family, especially my maternal grandparents, to tell me the difficult stories of their lives. They spared me those stories in the hope I would have a happier life than they had, and in the process, I think they left me a long road to try to learn some of those lessons on my own. I became less skeptical, responsible and empathetic than I otherwise would have been. And I think those qualities would have played out through the rest of my life, cascading to many other things I wish I could go back and change.