Tim O’Reilly

WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us

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WTF? can be an expression of amazement or an expression of dismay. In today’s economy, we have far too much dismay along with our amazement, and technology bears some of the blame.

In WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us (Harper Business, October 2017), I share some of the techniques we’ve used at O’Reilly Media to make sense of and predict past innovation waves such as the commercialization of the internet, open source software, the internet as a platform, big data, open government, and the maker movement. I apply those same techniques to provide a framework for thinking about how today’s world—spanning platforms and networks, on-demand services, and artificial intelligence are changing the nature of business, education, government, financial markets, and the economy as a whole. I give tools for understanding how all the parts of modern digital businesses work together to create marketplace advantage and customer value, and why ultimately, they cannot succeed unless their ecosystem succeeds along with them.

The book is a combination of memoir, business strategy guide, and call to action. It covers the lessons that I’ve learned about technology platforms from four decades in the industry, and how they apply both to businesses and to the broader economy.

The core of the call to action is an exhortation to businesses to DO MORE with technology rather than just using it to cut costs and enrich their shareholders. Robots are going to take our jobs, they say. I say, “Only if that’s what we ask them to do!” I’ve had my fill of technological determinism. Technology is the solution to human problems, and we won’t run out of work till we run out of problems. Entrepreneurs need to set their sights on how we can use big data, sensors, and AI to create amazing human experiences and the economy of the future, making us all richer in the same way the tools of the first industrial revolution did. Yes, technology can eliminate labor and make things cheaper, but at its best, we use it to do things that were previously unimaginable! What is our poverty of imagination? What are the entrepreneurial leaps that will allow us to use the technology of today to build a better future, not just a more efficient one?

What’s the future? It’s up to us.

Praise for WTF?

“No one is better at understanding the future than Tim O’Reilly. He has an intuitive feel and an deep knowledge of technology. This book makes sense of the astonishing transformations that are happening around us and is an indispensable guidebook to tomorrow.
“I really loved the book! Every chapter is great.”
Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin: an American Life, and The Innovators
“Tim O’Reilly’s creative insights and moral clarity have made him the trusted guide to waves of technology now sweeping the planet. If you want a better future, don’t just read this book, but make sure your friends do, too.”
Erik Brynjolfsson, Director MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and Co-author of The Second Machine Age
“For anyone who wants to know how to prepare for the future—and how we might shape that future in ways that broadly benefit society, not just technological or entrepreneurial elites—WTF? is an indispensable guide.”
Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and co-author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age
“O’Reilly has an uncanny knack for charting what’s ahead. In WTF?, he shows us know he does it. At a time of sweeping change, it is a bracing and an exhilarating read.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO, New America
“So many insights, so much history, so much of our future by the consummate insider who is as much a part of the story as the people and ideas he writes about—I was learning something on more or less every page.”
Dr. James Manyika, director, McKinsey Global Institute
“Tim has been an astute observer of both the successes and the excesses of Silicon Valley. This provocative book distills the lessons he has learned about the power of technology to shape our economy and our lives.”
Hal Varian, Google chief economist

Reviews of WTF?

From Do Lectures: “100 must-read books of 2018”

“With new technologies seeming to appear every week, how do we negotiate the future in a tech-driven world? Tim gives us some sagely wisdom.”

From opensource.com: “A summer reading list for open organization enthusiasts”

“Since I first saw Tim O’Reilly speak at a conference many years ago, I’ve always felt he had a good grasp of what's happening not only in open source but also in the broader space of digital technology. O’Reilly possesses the great ability to read the tea leaves, to make connections, and (based on those observations), to ‘predict’ potential outcomes. In the book, he calls this map making.
“While this book is about what the future could hold (with a particular filter on the impacts of artificial intelligence), it really boils down to the fact that humans are shaping the future. The book opens with a pretty extensive history of free and open source software, which I think many in the community will enjoy. Then it dives directly into the race for automated vehicles—and why Uber, Lyft, Tesla, and Google are all pushing to win…”
Jason Hibbetts

From Apolitical “Reading list for government innovators: The 12 essential books and reports”

“If you’re gripped by hysteria over automation and job-stealing-robots, Tim O’Reilly’s book is for you. The leading Silicon Valley thinker believes that government and business must harness technology as a solution to intractable problems, rather simply use it as a cost-cutting tool. But in order to do this, government must figure out how to shape it, regulate it and ensure it reflects our values. Big data, sensors and artificial intelligence could create the economy of the future—but if we fail to take ownership of technology, O’Reilly warns, we’ll fall prey to another period of war and instability.”
Jennifer Guay for Apolitical

From Shift Forum Reads: “WTF is wrong with capitalism? In capitalism, we’ve built an artificial intelligence that’s badly in need of a reboot, argues longtime tech observer Tim O’Reilly.”

“As I read, an idea emerged which runs through the work: When it comes to your work, you’re either making things, or you’re making money. You can certainly make money while you’re making things, and perhaps things get made if you focus on making money. But this essential choice is at the heart of the book. As a society, should we value creating products and services that make the world a bit better, or should we value creating money, and assume the rest follows? This question is particularly relevant when considering technology and its impact on our economy — as O’Reilly points out: ‘We are layering on new kinds of magic that are slowly fading into the ordinary… will we use it to make a better world? Or will we use it to amplify the worst features of today’s world?’
“This is an idea I’d been thinking about for some time, but O’Reilly’s book has a way of nudging things into the light: He takes sincere offense with the way our tech-driven capitalistic system has developed, and spends a lot of his book laying out a case for why we have to change our approach to how we run our companies and our governments. ‘There is a profound failure of imagination and will in much of today’s economy,’ he rails. ‘Policy makers seem helpless, assuming that the course of technology is inevitable, rather than something we must shape.’
“Yes, yes, yes!”
John Battelle

From Barron’s: “Here are the technology trends that really matter”

“People often ask what book they should read to get a better handle on current technology trends. My answer: There’s no better place to start the new year than with the recently published WTF? by Tim O’Reilly… He’s written WTF? in an approachable voice, weaving together conversations with dozens of individuals, from one-on-one chats with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to exchanges with Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos… WTF? is rich in observations large and small, many leading back to how humans will or won’t use technology well.”
Tiernan Ray

Included on Bloomberg’s list of “Must reads of 2017”

From Boing Boing: “Tim O’Reilly’s WTF? A book that tells us how to keep the technology baby and throw out the Big Tech bathwater”

WTF? is a book about technology as it was, as it is, and as it could be. It is told from the perspective of someone who has been personally present at the most important moments in the fast-paced history of tech, and who played a significant role in those moments. It’s a rare and important piece of criticism that inspires even as it dissects. Please do read this book.”
Cory Doctorow

From the Mercury News: Books by the Bay

“As the founder of O’Reilly Media, Inc., Tim O’Reilly takes a wide-angle view of the industry. His latest book, a readable mix of memoir, industry analysis and strategy guide, considers the ways new technologies are changing the nature of business, education, government and the economy. Things that once made us say ‘WTF?,’ he opines, now are ‘well on their way to being the stuff of daily life.’ His outlook is pretty upbeat, even as he envisions a world ruled by machines hostile to humanity.”
Georgia Rowie

From the Financial Times: “WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, by Tim O’Reilly—A longstanding Silicon Valley thinker suggests ways to keep humans and tech aligned”

“In his punchy and provocative book, O’Reilly argues that our financial markets are currently operating just like the runaway AI we most fear, incentivising corporate bosses to do bad things and destroy society… What’s the Future is an insightful and heartfelt plea, daring us to reimagine a better economy and society… What’s the Future is a jaunty read with a compelling narrative of how technology interweaves with the real world. If it can cajole even a few tech titans to dwell on the social and political impact of what they do then it will have served a useful purpose.”
John Thornhill

From Ars Technica: “Tim O’Reilly on why the future probably won’t be all that terrible”

“Tim’s book is a feast. Part memoir and part forward-leaning manifesto, it’s full of contrarian insights and fresh lenses for framing tech’s ever-baffling trajectory. All is backed up with data, facts, and first-hand reports from Tim’s decades on the front lines. And it’s steeped in a level-headed positivity that elegantly rebuts the sudden knee-jerk pessimism of a community that (let’s face it) has it pretty good, compared to most humans across history.”
Rob Reid

From The Family: “Haven’t You Read Tim O’Reilly?”

“I’ve just finished reading Tim O’Reilly’s WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. In the current anti-tech atmosphere, some may deride the publication as a self-serving effort by a Silicon Valley guru. My view is precisely the opposite: this is a book that is both insightful and unprecedented in its scope, ambition, and potential impact.
“It’s always been our view at The Family that tech entrepreneurs cannot succeed if institutions around them don’t change at the appropriate pace. But so far there have been very few Silicon Valley insiders willing to step out of their comfort zone and tackle the tough challenges of technology colliding with policy, governance, and institutional innovation.
“This is why WTF? is a breakthrough. With this book… Tim O’Reilly is joining the thin crowd of policy-aware thinkers in the tech industry. And he’s reminding us that our future (the future of jobs, of democracy, of our social compact) depends on imagining new institutions rather than simply waiting for technology to dictate its terms…”
Nicolas Colin

From ImpactAlpha: “WTF? Programming the master algorithm for the future we want”

“This time the entrepreneur and tech seer’s dispatches go beyond Silicon Valley, beyond technology and even beyond the good jobs and shared economy agenda O’Reilly has championed in his WTF conferences over the last few years. O’Reilly takes on the current logic of capital markets themselves… O’Reilly’s diagnosis is intriguing enough, but the real contribution of the book is in his outlines of an alternative. Drawing on tech history over the last few decades, he sketches a logic that could conceivably save ‘the market’ from itself.”
David Bank

From FairPay Zone: “WTF? A New, Better, Warm-Blooded Capitalism—Linking Profit to Human Values”

“Tim draws on his established position as thought leader with ties to the increasingly broad range of ‘alpha geeks’ and entrepreneurs that have shaped our digital world, and his perspective as a publisher and communicator concerned about the broad human effects of technology on our civilization. He richly explores the double-edged effects of technologies such as platforms, automation, algorithms, and AI, and how they seem to be making life worse in many ways, even as they work miracles… Through a wide range of contexts and examples, Tim suggests that we need to change the rules and incentives of our markets—not only markets for goods and services but also financial markets—and layers of internal and governmental rules that regulate them—to better address the conflicts between people and profit, to turn the invisible hand to guide corporations fairly.”
Richard Reisman

From CTOvision

WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us is a fantastic guide and overview of the tech and business megatrends sweeping over society… This book gets our strongest possible endorsement for anyone who wants to play a role in shaping the future of our tech enabled world (and that should be all of us).”
Bob Gourley


“Self-described ‘technology evangelist’ O’Reilly poses an interesting question: Is there a way to acknowledge that technology is taking over our daily lives without being afraid of it? To put it another way, How are we to integrate new technologies—self-driving cars, for example, or robots that are so smart they are replacing humans in the workplace—without feeling like we’ve lost control of our lives? Well, O’Reilly says, we’re kind of doing that already. He cites numerous examples of technological breakthroughs that seemed ominous at first but now are taken for granted: Google Maps, the iPhone, even the Internet. The worrisome or frightening has become the humdrum, something whose sudden absence would be a major inconvenience to us. So, rather than feeling confused or scared by new technologies, we should embrace them; rather than search for ways to exclude them from our lives, we should be in search of a harmonious existence. For technophobes, this is a comforting and user-friendly book; for technophiles, a celebration of the tremendous potential of new tech.”
David Pitt
Bio photo
Credit: Peter Adams / Faces of Open Source

About Tim O’Reilly

Tim O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc. His original business plan was simply “interesting work for interesting people,” and that’s worked out pretty well. O’Reilly Media delivers online learning, publishes books, runs conferences, urges companies to create more value than they capture, and tries to change the world by spreading and amplifying the knowledge of innovators.

Tim has a history of convening conversations that reshape the computer industry. In 1998, he organized the meeting where the term “open source software” was agreed on, and helped the business world understand its importance. In 2004, with the Web 2.0 Summit, he defined how “Web 2.0” represented not only the resurgence of the web after the dot com bust, but a new model for the computer industry, based on big data, collective intelligence, and the internet as a platform. In 2009, with his “Gov 2.0 Summit,” he framed a conversation about the modernization of government technology that has shaped policy and spawned initiatives at the Federal, State, and local level, and around the world. He has now turned his attention to implications of AI, the on-demand economy, and other technologies that are transforming the nature of work and the future shape of the business world. This is the subject of his new book from Harper Business, WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us.

In addition to his role at O’Reilly Media, Tim is a partner at early stage venture firm O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (OATV) and on the boards of Maker Media (which was spun out from O’Reilly Media in 2012), Code for America, PeerJ, Civis Analytics, and PopVox.