“The Cloud” is an integral part of our daily lives, and yet we’ve only recently started to incorporate this term into our vocabularies. And many of us still think about “the Cloud” simply as cloud computing. Tom Koulopoulos delves deep into the subject in his new book Cloud Surfing: A New Way to Think About Risk, Innovation, Scale, and Success, which launches today, examining what the Cloud means for human behavior, businesses, culture, and more. We spoke with Tom on the process of writing a book. Even though Cloud Surfing is Tom’s ninth book, he still finds inspiration when something as big, dynamic, and conceptual as the Cloud comes along. Congrats Tom!
What inspired you to write this book?
So having been there before and written a number of previous books it’s always a bit of a surprise to me when that inspiration comes along. I’m always looking for it, and I’m thinking, “So, what will the next book be on? What’s going to be relevant?” The tough thing is often to try to find something that is going to continue to be relevant.
I didn’t originally see the Cloud as being as much of a social, political, and economic phenomenon as I did a technical phenomenon. I’ve been aware of the Cloud for over a decade now. It was interesting, and it was certainly technology that I found to be important to businesses, but it wasn’t until three or so years ago when it began to dawn on me that what was happening in the Cloud was much more than a technological phenomenon. That’s when I got excited. It was going to impact, in very fundamental ways, the way that we would interact with the world: the way we as human beings, and we as nations and societies, would interact with the world.
And there were a couple of catalysts that really caused that to dawn on me. One was watching my kids and the way they began living in the Cloud. On the one hand I had my teenage daughter who was spending so much of her life building and maintaining and nurturing friendships through Facebook and Skype and literally spending much, much more of her life in that mode than I ever would have expected. And also seeing my pre-teen son starting to make friends around the world in the Cloud. It wasn’t just an Internet phenomenon anymore. It was starting to take on much more than a simple one-to-one connection, or a one-to-many connection, that we develop through social networks and blogging and such. It was really a whole experience that began, occurred, and ended in the Cloud. When my daughter would have her first relationship, I remember saying, “My goodness, her first boyfriend now lives with us.” Although he wasn’t here physically, whenever I’d walk into a room, he’d be there on a laptop, on Skype. I’d say, “Hi Ryan,” and he’d say, “Hi Mr. K.” It was literally as though he had moved in with us. And I thought, wow what a different experience this is than what I had grown up with. This was a whole new way of interacting with the world and with each other. And that was sort of the first real inspiration — to stop thinking about this as just technology. How’s this going to change the way we behave? That was really exciting to me because it was a much bigger topic.
And the second thing was when I started to take note of how much of the world was going to be put in place to capture our behaviors. So whether it’s cameras capturing what we do and where we are or Facebook and Google capturing our behaviors and what our likes and dislikes are, it all of a sudden dawned on me that we were being observed so much more and these observations were gong to have to exist somewhere. And they weren’t observations that I was going to own, but that someone else was going to own. I found that at the same time to be very frightening and very exciting. I thought, wow, this is something that needs to written about. Not as a technology but as a change in society and human behavior. That was the real inspiration. That got me very, very excited. I began talking about it to people, testing the thesis out on folks, and when I would, eyes would light up. I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t think of it as being extraordinarily frightening or exciting or different or interesting. And I said to myself, there’s a story to be told here and I want to take part in telling that story.
Do you think it’s frightening or exciting?
Both. A lot of times we tend to split the frightening and exciting depending on how old someone is. So we say, well for kids, more exciting than it is frightening and for adults, a bit more frightening than it is exciting. But I think there’s an element of that in everyone’s experience of the Cloud because we don’t quite know what to make of it. You know, we’ve been given this enormous new tool and in some ways it’s kind of like the discovery of how to split the atom. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? It depends on how it’s used. It’s a good thing because it creates a whole new set of possibilities for us, but it’s frightening in that a lot of those possibilities could be damaging. They could lead to cyber wars, to all kinds of disruptions to individuals and societies, but I think every great change comes with that; I don’t care what it is, from the radio to the printing press. In the very beginning it’s frightening and exciting. We should look at it and be skeptical. I’m fundamentally an optimist when it comes to human nature. The net positives always outweigh the negatives. It doesn’t mean that the negatives don’t exist. It just means that the positives outweigh them. We’re opening the lid to a huge Pandora’s Box. But I’m sure we’ll find more good, positive ways to help ourselves, our businesses, our societies, than there will be negative ways to disrupt and hurt people.
What has been your favorite part of the process?
There are a few parts that are really satisfying. The first part is when you finally realize, “I’m going to commit.” I remember when I first learned to ski. My friends were just horrible to me. They took me up to the top of the mountain and “OK, we’re going and you can follow us if you want.” There was only one way to get down that mountain, and that was on skis or a stretcher. There’s that feeling of, OK, I’m going to commit. I’m writing this book. It’s real. Everything’s done and in some number of months, a book will exist. I’m not sure where it’s all going to come from, but, wow, this is fun and I’m doing it.
The process of writing has its own satisfactions, but it’s a process and you don’t see the forest through the trees a lot of times. Occasionally, you’ll get to pull back. I do a lot of speaking, so my pull back will be with audiences. I’ll take a little bit of what I’ve written that week or that month and I’ll try to play it out in front of an audience. When they react in a very positive way, that’s exciting. That’s satisfying. I figure, “Hey, I’ve discovered something.” There’s a sense of discovery that comes with the writing. It’s tough to describe. It’s kind of like raising kids. You don’t know when those exciting moments will be, but when you’re there in that moment, you think, wow, this is great. This is what it means to be a parent. This is what is means to be an author. You have to be have a few of those moments scattered throughout the process.
And then, for me, the most exciting piece of it is when you finally get that book in your hands. And you can look at it. There are so few things in life that when you’re done with it, you can actually hold them in the palm of your hands. To be able to carry it around with you and show it to your friends and your family — with all the humility you can muster — is a neat, neat moment.
The most satisfying piece long term is when folks come back to you and say, “I read your book and because of that I did X, or I did Y, or I realized the following.” To have people come back and say, “I’ve read something that you’ve written and it had an impact on me, on my life, on my organization,” that is probably the highest compliment that any author can receive. A friend of mine, years ago, she’s a editor and writer for a major publication, said to me, “I don’t care who you are, for every author, it is always better to have written than to be writing.” And while the writing piece of it is fun — it’s neat to do that discovery stuff — it’s always so much more fun to have it done, and to talk to folks who are doing things with it.
Have there been any unexpected challenges to writing and publishing this book?
This book had a lot of challenges, but it had challenges for two reasons. One, I really tried to challenge myself to talk about the Cloud in ways that were non-intuitive. I wanted to provide a little bit of enlightenment that would hit people over the head. The Cloud’s role in education, in economics, in politics, this friction between generations that’s being created — I wanted folks to look at it that way. And that was challenging because I really had to make the case that the Cloud would be pervasive.
The other challenge was to write a story and not just a bunch of facts. Storytelling is always the biggest challenge for any author, especially when you’re writing about the future, you want to tell a story not about what has been, but what is going to be. That’s always a difficult thing to do because it’s tough to predict all the variables and to make it relevant when the book finally comes out because things change so quickly. These were good challenges though because they caused me to dig deep and think about what the Cloud was going to do to us and how it was going to do this and to look at all the various nooks and crannies of the world where the Cloud would have an impact.
They were neat challenges, but Cloud Surfing was definitely the most challenging book that I had written of the nine books. But it was also the most fun and the most satisfying of the nine.
If you could start the whole process over again, would you do anything differently?
You know, I don’t think there’s an answer to that question about anything in life that any sane person would answer with a “no.” We would always do things differently looking back because we have the advantage of hindsight. Knowing what I know, there are a few things I would have done differently.
The first is from the outset I would have given myself a bigger kick in the pants to believe my own thesis. By the time I was done with the thesis, it became clear to me that this was one of the biggest social changes that I would see in my lifetime and that perhaps my kids would see in their lifetimes. This is really going to redefine an entire century in terms of how we run business, how we explore, how we face challenges in the world. At the outset I was still a bit suspect. What was neat about that was that I had a really great ally. Erika would every so often give me that kick in the pants. She would bring my attention back to the fact that this was really going to be a big deal.
The second thing that I would change is to focus earlier on in on the whole notion of how the Cloud is creating a new type of intelligence. And I mean that in the purist sense of the word. I do think the Cloud is going to create an intelligence that allows us as human beings to do things that are inconceivable to us today. To be able to address challenges, to solve problems, to create global prosperity, to educate people on a scale that we can’t even begin to imagine. Going back in time knowing what I know now, I would have been even more adamant and forceful of that argument. In the end, it still comes out in the book, but it took me a while to realize how pervasive this phenomenon would really be. And it came from talking to people who were living and working in the Cloud. It was a reality that I ended up embracing.
What’s next for you Tom? Any more books?
Oh, of course. It’s a sickness. It really is. Writing a book serves several purposes. One: it allows me to educate myself on those things that I think are really important. Sometimes my 13-year-old son comes home from school and says to me, “Why do I have to study all these things? I’m not going to be a scientist or a mathematician.” And my response is always, “Well, you don’t know what you’re going to be. You have to learn it right now so that you have a foundation.” And I think that part of it for me is that I pick an area, like the Cloud, and I get excited about it and I want to educate myself on how meaningful this thing really is.
The second thing is that it purges my mind. I can’t stay on one topic for very long. I have wandering mind. There’s always another book out there and I don’t know right now what that is. That wanderlust is really exciting. What’s going to be so important to me that I want to spend two or three years thinking and writing about it? I’m sure there are more books in store. People always ask me, when do you find the time to write? The time is always there when you’re passionate. If you really want something, suddenly the time becomes a non-issue. You squeeze it in. Every so often something comes along that gets you so jazzed that you find the time.