Beta-think and ending malaria

Amazon, Seth Godin’s Domino, and other good folks collaborated to come out with a book of essays whose proceeds go to buy mosquito nets to end malaria. My essay for End Malaria Day is actually the topic of the next book I was going to do until I got all hopped up on publicness and privacy and wrote Public Parts. The essay is on beta-think. Here’s a snippet from the start:

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Voltaire was half right. “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” he said: The best is the enemy of the good. The best is also the enemy of the better. Striving for perfection complicates and delays getting things done. Worse, the myth of perfection can shut off the process of improvement and the possibility of collaboration.

That myth of perfection is a byproduct of the industrial revolution and the efficiencies of mass production, distribution, and marketing. A product that takes a long time to design and produce is sold to a large market with a claim of perfection. Its manufacturer can’t have customers think otherwise. The distribution chain invests in large quantities of the product and can’t afford for it to be flawed. Mass marketing is spent to convince customers it is the best it can be. Thus perfection becomes our standard or at least our presumption. But perfection is delusion. Nothing and no one is perfect.

The modern cure to Voltaire’s paradox—and a gift of the digital age—is the beta: the unfinished and imperfect product or process that is opened up so customers can offer advice and improvements. Releasing a beta is a public act, an invitation to customers to help complete and improve it. It is an act of transparency and an admission of humility. It is also an act of generosity and trust, handing over a measure of control to others.