We live in the greatest period of opportunity in all of human history, but how will you gain from it? Furthermore, how do you influence and shape both your life and the future of humanity? Do you have a plan to engage the exponential change in your life?
Eric Pilon-Bignell’s new book, Surfing Rogue Waves, presents a gripping and insightful framework, and how to pick up a board and surf the rogue waves of the 21st century. His insights are going to help business leaders understand the onslaught of the complexity of the disruption that they face, not just in the office, but throughout the everyday encounters of daily life as they navigate and unshackle future potential.
Drew Appelbaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Eric Pilon-Bignell, author of Surfing Rogue Waves: How to Paddle Out into the 21st Century. Eric, thank you for joining. Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Thank you very much for having me.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off, can you give us a bit of a rundown of your professional background?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, my background, I started formally in engineering, I worked as an engineer for a while, and then I moved over more to the front end of the business and interacted more with clients. Then moved again, and more to client facing and interacting and managing clients specifically. I went through from engineering, professionally worked all the way through to consulting now in the IT space. Formal training wise, I did my undergrad in engineering and then an MBA in information systems in technology, and a PhD in global leadership.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, why was now the time to share the stories in the book? Was there something really inspiring that happened, did you have an “aha moment” did you just need to let this out now?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: I finished my dissertation and there’s this certain amount of academic rigor that goes into that and felt that need to apply too much more than what I had published in my dissertation. I found that the more people I was speaking with and the more I was seeing it really map back to everyday life stuff, I spent the next couple of years really understanding that and understanding this disruption. A lot has changed and a lot of the IT and technologies that we have coming and a lot that are already here, and I wanted to open that up. This is what the book is, it moved me more into that space about how it applies more to everyday life rather than global executives.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, a lot of authors have the idea of the book rattling around in their head and sometimes you can outline the idea out but during the writing process, just by digging deeper into some of the subjects you’re talking about, they’ll come to some major breakthroughs and learnings. Did you have any of these major breakthroughs or learnings along your writing journey?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, I think I had a lot of breakthroughs. I saw a lot of these events develop in parallel and then I started picking them off every day in my life. We are in the middle of and going through a pandemic right now, but I think we’ve seen things that are bigger parts of the conversation and political and social systems that are pretty outdated and archaic.
We’ve seen the general public trust in organizations, companies, governments, the media–I’d say even science itself has been under attack as of late, and all this complexity maps back to a lot of the things that I’ve been putting together in this book. I found myself falling back on it a little bit to try to understand and make sense of it all.
Drew Appelbaum: When you were writing the book, who exactly did you have in mind that you were writing this book for? Is this only for executive leadership or can regular folks have takeaways from the book?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think I fought that a few times going through the book, but it’s really written for anyone who is interested in how the future’s unfolding today, right, Drew? I wrote this book for you, we spoke, and you’re interested, I know it. It sounds cliché, and we’ve heard it before, we write our decisions in actions, small and big, that will define and determine the fate of humanity, but the book unpacks a lot more than that, at a high level.
We know what’s coming, we don’t know why, and exactly how it’s coming, and we can’t see the future yet, for example, but we do know that the forecast holds these advancements we’re seeing in robotics and in VR, virtual reality and augmented reality and digital biology and sensors. These are not standalone concepts progressing anymore. They’re being augmented and smashing into 3D printing, blockchain, networks, AI, which are all creating an incredible explosion of rogue disruption that’s changing our everyday lives.
The reality is, for most of us here, we need to do laundry, buy groceries, get to work on time, we don’t always have time to ponder the future of the human race, but the book was really designed to help put in perspective the importance on all sides of the conversation, not just the technical ones. It provides a pragmatic kind of framework on how we surf these rogue waves and disruption.
Ultimately, the book aims to really raise some awareness on the speed of this disruption we’re paddling straight out into, and how we can be rational, yet excited about what the future holds because a lot of this unknown can be overwhelming or scary. I think it also is going to give us some of the greatest opportunities and solve some of the greatest problems we ever thought possible.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, I wanted to start diving into the book itself and you actually say that the foundations of the book are rooted in your PhD thesis. Can you tell us more about that and maybe what the focus of the thesis was and what you found?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, absolutely. The thesis I built on a theoretical framework, just saying that sounds boring for the most part but really what it is, its’ three concepts that you can apply and again, as a framework so it’s not prescriptive, it’s not step-by-step, it’s not directive but it’s really understanding how we manage this complexity.
In the book, it’s a surfing framework and this complexity is the waves of life we battle into all the time, right? Complexity in itself is a very unique science, and it’s at a high level made up of interactions and emergence and it’s dynamic and it can self-organize and adapt, and true complexity is all of these things at once, and you know, if it’s some of these things but not the other, that is possibly complicated.
We understand complicated very well, but we don’t understand complex and complexity has these great events, possibly when these technologies are colliding together or systematic tensions, hitting a pique right now, we’ve got politicized issues, like, when all these things come together at once and we see these large rogue disruptions or events. The first part of that framework is really how you manage that kind of complexity in your life and then followed by what we can do about it.
A lot of these, it’s not a self-help, do this, do that. I’m not cherry-picking or taking anecdotes and saying you need to do specific things, but the surfer in this framework–we have waves, the surfer, and the surfboard. The surfer is us, this is how we improvise and I’m not going to unpack it fully here, but there is an art to improvisation.
It’s not just winging it, but you know, it’s kind of winging it. That’s how we have to navigate the unknown generally. Then that third pillar that you stand on is a surfboard. You have these waves coming your way, you want to get in the barrel because that’s really where you can evolve and grow as a person, and by solving problems. You have the surfer, that’s us, we improvise our way in there, we have to take things as they come at us, and then ultimately, we got to stand on a sound, rational decision and have sound rational beliefs and that’s our surfboard.
From there, it highlights everything from errors, which are different than cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are really errors in our mental architecture, and then, it highlights some of the bigger questions, the beliefs, and fake beliefs and belief errors and it touches a little bit into why we’re seeing this new phenomenon of let’s call it faking news. Facts aren’t changing minds and we don’t know who to trust, and how do we step back from all that noise and really understand that?
At a high level, without going into too much detail, that’s essentially the framework that was built off of my dissertation.
Shaping our Future
Drew Appelbaum: Now, to dig into a few of the things you mentioned just a little bit more, I’d love to know why you think people don’t think about how they could really influence and shape the next 10, 20, 30 years, not only of their life but of the life of other people on the planet or humanity in general?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, I think a lot of this has to come with the exponential change we’re experiencing right now, right? Disruption–everything is moving faster and faster and we’re doing more and more and a lot of this is great. The reality is too far down the machine that we can’t really stop it and go back the way we want, but we’re spending so much time and we’re being inundated with so much information all the time that a small percentage of the people in the world do get to spend a time philosophizing about these things, but for most of us, we have the realities of life.
We have bills, we have a mortgage, we have cars, we have all these different items that we got to make sure we’re taking care of and we don’t quite get the luxury to put it all in perspective. I think the reality is, it’s a lot more that I’m not talking about a small technical thing. What happens when we get artificial general level intelligence? Even that concept has policy problems.
There are all kinds of stuff about how we’re going to develop and you know, are we proactively putting these ethics in place today for the future, and there’s a lot of different people who need to have part of this conversation who as soon as they hear some of these technologies, don’t consider themselves to be technical, but they are all part of the solution.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah, how do you see more people getting involved, do you have any ideas about how and some of these really critical decisions of our future and human history?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, I think awareness is the biggest one, right? The first thing I’ve noticed and I kind of stumbled into it a little bit but at the center of this surfing framework, you have the complexity in your life, you’re improvising with this rational foundation, right in the middle in there, you’ve got this disruption that occurs, it occurs on all kinds of levels. The biggest thing that drew me, I guess a lot, in making this book was that we don’t seem to notice a change until after it happens. You never signed up for the Internet or were asked to vote on why Alexa’s in your house now.
These things just kind of appeared into our life and that’s okay on small changes maybe, maybe not, maybe we don’t all love that cellphones track our every movement. But the changes that are coming down are very different. When we start talking about CRISPR sitting on top and empowered by artificial intelligence that turns the thing around that used to take us 20 years and now, we can do it 20 times in a second.
I mean, are you okay with gene-editing, are we okay with designer babies? Some people might be, some people might not be. The book’s not designed to tell you which one’s okay, it’s just saying we need to start to have these discussions now. Because once it’s here, you might wake up in a world you don’t love.
Drew Appelbaum: Let me ask you, Eric, what do you see coming next for us?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: I guess there are three fields. There are the people who just don’t have the time or who are not interested or not sure how to get into it, there’s the techno optimist and techno pessimist. I probably would lean more on the optimist side. I think, in reality, I put a lot of this in perspective, the world is better today than it’s ever been, and that is really hard to decipher through all the noise that we get. It shows in the research in there, and as most people in almost every nation of the world, would tell you it is not, it’s getting worse.
That’s not the case and all that kind of gets clicked into and explained, but I see us really having some exciting things. I think we’re going to solve things that are currently believed to be impossible, right? I think that the reality is, a lot of this technology is going to put to rest–we’re not going to lose loved ones to things that we would automatically lose loved ones to. 50 years ago, if you explained the concept of IVF to someone, they would need to get their head around it. Now, it’s no problem.
I think we’re going to have incredible things with the fine line that we run into is we are able to really differentiate between helping humans and upgrading humans. That’s one thing when you are editing out genes like sickle cell and Parkinson’s disease, but what’s the next step? You want blue eyes, a better athlete, you know what I mean, to making them smarter because that’s also there. We’re not having those conversations to regulate some of that stuff. I think we’re going to see some incredible change. I mean we are seeing a lot of change right now, which is great.
I think the reality is in our past, and I catch myself doing it, there are a lot of concepts that aren’t just technical ones. Like what we’re going through–there is racism right now and we’re going through a lot with the Black Lives Matter movement, and I think in the past, these were problems we always said, “Well, that will never get solved in my lifetime.” I think it’s really neat how these generations, the future generation is saying the only way that it won’t get solved in our lifetime is if we say it won’t be solved in our lifetime.
We are solving more and more of these problems and we definitely have a ton of work to do. I think just the way we’re going to see changes, honestly, across the board and all of industry, society, our day-to-day lives are going to change. These exponential technologies have been working on their own, they’re starting to collide, and then we’re going to see some crazy stuff.
I think healthcare is going to completely change and there is good and bad in there, right? How do we address massive disruptions of industries that are responsible for most of the jobs in and around us? How are we going to re-educate school? The world is changing at a faster pace and we are educating kids in the same way we were a hundred years ago. It’s finance, insurance, real estate, we farm and somehow have all of this food that we waste 40% of–one in eight people are still going hungry.
Whereas we have a lot of the solutions in place right now, now we just need the smart people to bring it into life and make them realistic and feasible. I think that is what’s really needed by the world we’re coming into. A lot of these things are maybe too expensive right now, the reality is some of these medical treatments might only be available to people who are willing to pay a lot of money but what’s beautiful about exponentials is that’s real in the short term, but eventually that catches up. It’s the same reason more people have mobile phones than toilets in the world, unfortunately.
Phones can arrive in this exponential curve, toilets cannot and because of that, we’ve got phones everywhere and not fresh running water. I think it’s exciting, at the same time I think it is going to bring out very big topics. How do we address concepts like living longer? How are we going to get into that? You know, it is one thing when we lived until we’re 20 or 30, you know a hundred years ago, then we started living into our 60s, and now 80s and 90s, what are we going to do with an aging demographic?
We have more 80-year-olds than two-year-olds on the planet right now and those 80-year-olds might not die at 84 on average. They might die significantly older than that. We’ve got those problems, we have the constant problem of why, and almost every culture when they were doing worst in the 1950s compared to now, as their happiness is the same. You know, happiness is a strange concept that we tie our expectations to, and as our expectations grow, we need to achieve them more. We’re getting more but we’re not happier. Eventually, if we solve a lot of these problems but we’re not happier, what are we doing it for?
Then I think the tougher conversations around human augmentations is it’s one thing to disrupt and change everything around us and I think we have a lot of trouble with that, but we are now starting to disrupt ourselves. How does this work when, you know, it’s one thing when Elon Musk sticks a chip and communicates with the pigs in their brain, but we are getting close to doing a lot of this stuff with humans and who is going to draw that line?
These are global issues and we’ve just recently seen with this COVID-19 pandemic–us handling global problems is not our strong suit. We can do different things here. We can’t have China and Russia doing one thing, the US doing something, and Europe doing another thing. Ultimately, we need to come together on a lot of these things, which might not seem as short term as a nuke is going to blow us up, but we have some very long-term slippery slopes but also incredible things that are going to do for us.
The Ethics of Data
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you mentioned a lot of these technological breakthroughs and things that are in the works. How are the tech companies of today balancing the ethical side of this new technology?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: A fine line, right? There is a part of the book specifically in and around highlighting some of the ethics. I think it is twofold. One, we don’t store things in filing cabinets. I know now that you have access to it and if it gets out it’s your fault, but they are capturing our data, and do they have to protect it? Who has our data? What are they doing with our data? What are the laws like?
I don’t want anyone to have my data, but I walk outside, and I am on someone’s ring camera, my facial recognition is going to be on there now. Who is allowed to do what with that data and back to that same problem, right? If we put in laws here but then other countries can do whatever they want with that data, now it’s very different. It is a slippery slope that I know they are very much working on but again, we all hope for the best but ultimately, we don’t know.
We still see things like this Cambridge Analytica disaster that went off and we know how corporations work, and some might cut corners, some might not. There isn’t the same kind of rigor. Values and ethics are a bit different because ethics is going to drive our loss, but a lot of these things in the past, you know, if you stole from me, our courts are very active. We look at the legal precedence and we would punish you for that.
A lot of these problems, we’re not going to get a chance to go back and see what happened in the past. It would never happen in the past and, we have bigger problems by the time we move on. I don’t think most people think about it. I think the corporations are but I think again, just more attention in bringing this conversation to the forefront is something that we all need to be doing and thinking through.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, it’s really interesting. You said that during the writing of the book, technology moves so fast that the world might have changed twice over by the time it’s published. Has that actually happened?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: In some ways yes, in some ways no. That’s a good one, that’s a good question. We’ve seen disruptions of disruptions and then that starts to get crazy. In the book, it could go a completely different way, and the book is by no means meant to be prescriptive. It’s just me, especially towards the end, painting a picture of like, “This will happen sometime.”
I don’t know when, how, or in what order, but the reality is an advancement–neural networks help, artificial intelligence helps–nanotechnology and biotechnology because whereas these used to work in silos before, any one of these advancements can set off a roadway than any one of these other kinds of departments. We are seeing that. I think some are coming down the pipe, probably not as far as we think, but seeing screens really disrupt a lot of our life and most of what we used to experience now is in the screen, but what are we going to do when the screen is disrupted and we’re mapping back this through a chip in the back of your retina or just stimulating a sphere in your brain?
There is really no reason to have a screen if you think about it but are we okay with that? Are we not okay with that? Some of these things definitely aren’t here yet but then if you look at a lot of the autonomous cars driving or some of the other stuff I’m seeing coming out now. Apparently, we just recently put a human embryo in a monkey or read some of their genes together or something and you know all of a sudden, it’s here and that’s wild.
Drew Appelbaum: In your mind, what is the goal of the book for readers? What steps do you hope that readers will take after reading the book or what questions do you hope they’ll ask themselves?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, so that’s a great question. I think at a high level, a bit of the goal of the book is to bring awareness. I think the very first step is we need to have more people involved in these conversations and taking part in these conversations. I think one of the goals is that this framework and this book and the things you get from it is an entirely different experience depending on the individual because it applies to the complexity of life.
I am not going to go into detail about it, but the complexities we have to pull us in two different ways–very much a structured way and then very much a free way, and in that middle tension that we feel, which is uncomfortable, is really how we grow and evolve. It’s the same at a larger level where we are seeing a lot of the tensions that were running at a daily level and that larger systematic levels as well and everything in between in our company.
The takeaway I think is really what individuals can do to leverage that framework. How do they, whether it’s taking part in some of these larger conversations that we’re having, and we’re going to have to figure out, or whether it’s how they’re going to use that framework in their everyday life. The previous generation’s information and access to information, that was how you became successful.
What we’re living in now and for the foreseeable future, how you filter through the information, that is essentially how you’re going to be successful. Again, you want to shape as much as you can, your life and your passions to an outcome that you want that favors you, and that you like. This book arms you with that a little bit across the board. I guess with some personal takeaways that are very unique to the individual, which is neat. That’s a bit of what I love is talking with people and hearing about how they apply it completely differently because they are living in a completely different world than I am.
Their day-to-day lives are just completely different. Then some people are going to lean on and use it more and more, and other ones aren’t, but I think what’s great is it’s at the very least going to start the conversation. I find myself falling back on it all the time to understand what’s going on. There is just so much information out there, you open up any one of your social media feeds and you scroll through it, and for me, understanding not how X connects to Y, but it makes me think back a couple more steps. Because if all of these pieces are really sitting on something that’s not a rational foundational belief to start off with, it doesn’t matter if the first three or last three are connected and they make sense. How do I look back to the bigger picture?
The speed at which we’re moving, we all love the luxury to take more time and dissect things. We all love the luxury to go read the research, but the reality is, we don’t even have research on some of this stuff, and by the time that research comes out it might be relevant or moving on to the next thing. We really need a pragmatic framework to help us surf through these things. If you think about how a surfer surfs, it’s mind-blowing.
There is this molecular soup of who knows what’s going on before, and the moon is creating tidal patterns, and somehow in there with real-time coefficients of frictions in their board and balancing and a human rides this wave, but that does not go to the surfer’s head. We just have this high level of framework and you get up and you surf, and the one thing is you can only be a good surfer if you surf, that is the pragmatic approach here that I think the surfing framework really leaves you with.
This isn’t analysis by paralysis, this isn’t theoretically. You’ve got to get out there and we got to do it and you’re going to wipe out sometimes and you’re going to have great rides other times and the more we do this, the better we’re just going to get at surfing all of this stuff that is coming our way. That’s I think kind of the takeaway on two different levels of the book for sure.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Eric, you know, we just touched on the surface of the book here but I just want to say that writing a book that really asked the reader to step back and look around and question our current systems and in the future is no small feat, so congratulations on having the book published.
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, thank you very much. It’s been a great ride. It was probably a lot more work than I thought when I initially set out, but it’s been a great time. I think more than anything, it’s just such an honor having individuals that are willing to give up honestly probably their most valuable asset, which is their time, and read through the book and hearing different takeaways and building off that. I love that some people challenge parts of it, which is great too and I think it’s been a really awesome experience.
Drew Appelbaum: This has been a pleasure and I am really excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called Surfing Rogue Waves and you can find it on Amazon. Eric, besides checking out the book, where can people connect with you?
Eric Pilon-Bignell: Yeah, ultimately ericpb.me so that’s the ultimate one and then I’m also on the usual handles, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as well.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Eric, thank you so much for coming on the show today, and best of luck with your new book.
Eric Pilon-Bignell: I appreciate it, thank you so much for having me.
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