Meet Startup @TW

From High School Dropout to Bestselling Author: a Conversation with Chris Anderson

When it comes to predicting technological trends, Chris Anderson is an expert. He was listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2007 and is the author of three bestsellers – “The Long Tail,” “Free” and “Makers.”

He recently stepped down from his post as editor-in-chief of Wired magazine to become CEO of 3D Robotics, an unmanned aerial vehicle company. He once worked as a physicist, conducting research at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico.

It's hard to imagine that he once struggled academically and was thrown out of one high school and two universities. This came up in a conversation with Business Next on the sidelines of the ACBAC 2018 Digital Innovation Forum in Taipei.

Q: You were listed on the Time 100. How does one become a visionary?

A: I am absolutely not a visionary. I started out as a scientist. My background is in physics and economics. Elon Musk has exactly the same background.

Economics is a terrific tool kit to try and make sense of the world and physics is a terrific tool kit. And they both use a lot of data. You have to extract patterns from that data and you have a framework of models that you can apply.

Wired [magazine] was built on the principle of the science fiction writer William Gibson, who said: “The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed.”

If you go around and talk to people and keep your eyes open, the ascendant technology, the glimpses of the future are out there already. You don’t have to imagine them.

Q: What was your greatest personal challenge in life and how did that affect your outlook on your work?

A: Hmmm... I’m a high school dropout. I didn’t go to college until I was 27. I was working as a bicycle messenger for most of my twenties. I got kicked out of two universities and one high school.

I’m not proud of that. I was just immature.

Q: Still, given what you have achieved, that’s very inspiring?

A: As it happened, it worked out well. I could have ended up homeless and under a bridge. I screwed everything up. I was living not exactly on the street but in a group house. I was basically living on the minimum wage and playing in punk rock bands and that sort of thing.

Q: How did you manage to get kicked out of high school?

A: Not going to class.

Q: Were you bored?

A: I lost the plot. Boys are sometimes slow to grow up.

Q: What would you do when you cut class?

A: I wish I could tell you that I was outside smoking pot. But I was in the library reading. I was nerdy and a bad student – a very weird combination.

I was reading physics. I read lectures [by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman,] which is graduate- level physics but I also failed physics [classes.] I just don’t like being told what to do. I don’t like being taught. I like to teach myself.

Of course, today I would just be on YouTube learning on the internet. But in those days there was [nothing like that.]

Q: What was it that got you to pull yourself together in the end?

A: I was bored. I just woke up one day and said to myself: You know, I think I am capable of more than this.

If you work minimum wage jobs, you can sort of see what your life looks like if you don’t pull yourself together. Some people give up and some people pull themselves together. Fortunately I was that one. I went back to college and I graduated with flying colors and it all worked out really well. But it might not have.

In many countries such as the U.K .I don’t think I would have been given a second chance. There would have been no O-levels, no A-levels, none of that stuff.

But the nice thing about the U.S. is that it’s the land of second opportunities. I also didn’t do anything stupid like get arrested or do drugs anything like that.

Q: It seems to me you talk about economic ways to turn lemons into lemonade. With your book, “The Long Tail,” you said unpopular things could sell well if distribution channels, especially digital distribution channels, are broad enough. How can Taiwan turn economic lemons into lemonade? Taiwan was once one of the “Asian Tigers.” Now growth has slowed and salaries have stagnated for over a decade. Then, China is the enemy and it is right on the doorstep. It has an advantage of a large market and it can pay more to attract a superior talent pool?

A: Do you actually think China is the enemy? That’s a very old-fashioned view I don’t believe that has been true for 20 years.

China is obviously Taiwan’s largest trading partner. They are fully intertwined culturally and economically. They speak the same language. I haven’t heard the phrase “China is the enemy” since the Kuomintang days. I flew here from Shanghai to Taipei. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have done that.

The saber rattling and politics that seems an undercurrent here seems surreal from outside. It seems like the DMZ in North Korea: a weird artifact of the Cold War.

Q: I guess my question is: how can Taiwan leverage its economic strengths in the region given the obstacles it faces?

A: The main question is: what’s Taiwan for? From a global competitiveness perspective, what’s Taiwan’s competitive strength in the world? Putting aside politics ... 20 years ago it was the bridge to China, it was the entry point. Twenty years ago, it was the higher end of innovation, the ODMs, the silicon fabs and things like that.

But over time, China doesn’t need a [bridge.] American companies can work directly with them and they do. China has moved up the value chain. It does its own ODMs. It’s moved up the value chain in terms of its own brands.

So I guess the question is: what is Taiwan’s unique advantage?

I think (what’s) changed most for me, is that 20 years ago I thought of Taiwan of being primarily in the U.S. sphere of influence, it was largely connected to Silicon Valley and maybe China.

Now I think Silicon Valley goes straight to the mainland and Taiwan’s center of gravity is moving more towards Japan. I think Japan is recovering as an economy. Japanese companies are losing ground as brands and finished products but showing real strength in components.

The Japanese-mainland relationship continues to be fraught for historic reasons. But the Japanese-Taiwanese relationship is quite strong. I may be wrong, but it still seems like [Taiwan] has a strong bridging function. But it’s more tied to the resurging Northeast Asian [region] and Japanese markets and less to the U.S. That’s my instinct about it.

I think it will have something to do with Japanese components packaged up through Taiwanese channels into things that cannot be manufactured in the mainland [ for shipment to China]. Silicon [chips] being the obvious answer but there are other things as well.

[Some at the forum] were arguing that Taiwan’s future is more with Southeast Asia, which I don’t quite see. Largely because I don’t see Southeast Asia being a coherent and innovative a market as Northeast Asia,

One of the big insights I got on my trip here is that I hadn’t realized how acute the demographic crisis is.

Q: You're right. Last year Taiwan’s total fertility rate – the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime – stood at 1.13.

A: That must be one of the lowest rates in the world. What is going on? The biggest explanation for GDP stagnation is population stagnation. That’s just math.