2012-03-29

Co.Exist

The Secret Scandinavian Ingredient That Makes Their Tech Good For The World

Tech coming from the Nordic countries--think Linux or Skype--often levels social, technological, and commercial playing fields. This isn’t a coincidence, it’s just part of what being Scandinavian means.

As a venture capitalist, I naturally spend large amounts of time thinking about business and technology models and their evolution and propagation. I also happen to be interested in culture and history. In the course of my reflections, I noticed a curious trend among many technology businesses that either materialized directly out of the Scandinavian region or were created by entrepreneurs of Scandinavian origin that had had exposure to their cultures in a meaningful way, even if they no longer lived in the region.

This trend consisted of a particular flavor of tech innovation, what I call "equitable technologies." These are technologies that level social, technological, and commercial playing fields by decentralizing control and redistributing it to individuals. The businesses built on this innovation were articulated in many forms and industries but at their core operated on these same principles of distributed decentralization.

The underlying technologies making up this trend all echoed some of the same spirit of the early Internet: they began (and aimed to stay) free of charge; they were universally accessible and shared; they were driven and built by the larger community; were easily improved upon; and they were deeply divisive to existing businesses and models, weakening entire traditional industries as they gained momentum.

The fact that this technology phenomenon seemed to manifest itself in Scandanavia is not a coincidence. Nordic innovators and inventors were culturally predisposed to develop such technologies:

The Nordic countries hold to an unwritten but deeply felt and practiced code called Janteloven or, in English, Jante law. This code, regardless of an individual citizen’s conscious adherence or acceptance of it, comprises a deep, omnipresent undercurrent of Nordic culture. The code prescribes egalitarianism, collectivism, homogeneity, and conformity as values to be protected and practiced by citizens. To subscribe to the notion of individual gain or individuality over the collective ethos; to consider oneself superior in any way; or to display any shard of elitism is abhorrent, undesirable, and unacceptable. You might say it’s pretty much the exact opposite of how we think as Americans.

Under Jante law, a Nobel Prize winner is expected to not think herself better or more valuable to society than the town mechanic, and the beautiful woman will likely be as truly modest and self-deprecating about her good looks as her homely cousin. Anyone who has spent any reasonable period of time in the Nordics will recognize this aspect of the Nordic character which usually reads as a charming humility and a reticence to accept compliments or take credit. This playing field leveling manifests in the Scandinavian welfare system where, in places like Denmark, university, pension, health care, parental leave, and social services are high quality, free, and the right of every citizen. (The price for such an idyllic society however, is that the entire social infrastructure is supported by cripplingly heavy taxation.)

The general culture and sociology that bubbles up from such deep rooted homogenous ideals has historically contributed to maintaining overall domestic and comparative international affluence, keeping crime low and neighborhoods safe, institutionalizing some progressive ideals, and encouraging a civil, predictable way of life. But it has also held desires like competition, comparison, and pursuit of success in check, while they run rampant in modern commercially, competitively oriented societies like the United States.

But these same longstanding collectivist conformist traditions that have choked competition have, consciously and unconsciously, created a foundation for technologies that have had great impact because of their distinctly egalitarian and collaborative character. Nordics have repeatedly pioneered technologies that have had notable societal and sociological effect. Technologies such as Linux, Kazaa, Joost, and Skype are decentralized innovations and technology which was designed to benefit and belong to everyone.

Let’s take the computer operating system Linux as an example. This open-source OS was a remarkable product at creation and arguably more robust than what existed at the time. The self-effacing publicity-shy father of this technology, Linus Torvalds, developed the core, offered it up to anyone who had an improvement with the stipulation that the code behind the addition would be made public, and gently guided the evolving system to power a staggering array of services, software and hardware, all free of charge. This system earned the reverberating goodwill and support of the tech community, ultimately organically creating a formidable and powerful threat to the reigning incumbents in the operating system industry.

Torvalds, the creator of Linux, grew up in Finland, a part of its Swedish minority. Nordic Torvalds, by all accounts, apparently was--and presumably still is--a consensus builder, smoothing out what must have amounted to hundreds of disagreements between developers that were all contributing to the improvement, evolution, and future of Linux over the years. Though Torvalds also held the potentially mind-numbingly lucrative trademark to Linux, he felt he didn’t really “own” any of it. He not only managed to maintain this neutrality but also protected the technology from those who would hijack or marginalize it.

A second example of this technology trend comes from the Swedish-Danish duo of Niklas Zennström (a Swede) and Janus Friis (a Dane), the co-founders of Kazaa. Kazaa not only jeopardized the traditional manner in which video, audio, and other media was shared, but also consequently threatened the gigantic industries and business models built around development, commercialization and distribution of content. The network-based free peer-to-peer (P2P) software they developed not only delivered media through communication pipes but created lucrative new businesses (such as the notorious drive-by-download adware that came bundled along with Kazaa software) that ultimately allowed the original application to stay free of charge. Invention spawning invention.

In their next incarnation, these founders applied their knowledge and experience to telephony. The resulting offering, Skype, was a novel, fun, seemingly harmless IP-based messaging and communication application that became incredibly popular because it was free. It allowed the individual to supplement--and even supplant--their current purchased communication products with easy, free phone calls, shifting power to the individual consumer. It quickly became clear the software had the potential to disrupt the entire global communications industry model catching the interest of investors and incumbents.

It is both interesting and ironic that the very ideals that promoted the egalitarian and homogenous, when exposed to highly commercial environments and cultures, can become the driving forces that can disrupt and transform the status quo. The culture of humbleness, it seems, can be an active, fertile birthing ground for impactful, disruptive technologies that focus on equality and the needs of the many.

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22 Comments

  • Ninan Eapen

    Interesting take on the extremely positive Scandinavian egalitarian approach; looks like it does have a role to play in modern competitive economies. Just hope the social benefits offered in the country, going by the various comments here, are sustainable enough to make these kind of societies to thrive.

  • Lennart Regebro

    "Under Jante law, a Nobel Prize winner is expected to not think herself better or more valuable to society than the town mechanic."That's egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is of course good. But that's not what the Jante law is about at all. The Jante law is this:"Under Jante law, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine is expected to not think herself better than the town mechanic *at medicine*."

    The Jante law is only about conformance. It's only about doing everything the same way as the majority. The authors of the technologies mentioned here are all grossly violating every single aspect of the Jante law, and they do so by even imagining that they might create something new and useful.

    No part of the Jante law says "Don't think you are better than other people." The law says "Do not think you are as good as we are". It's a law about exclusion, about a homogenous "us" vs whoever dares show a single smidgen of individualism. The Jante law is totalitarian and opressive and does not have any positive sides at all.

    The Jante law is not egalitarian. Egalitarianism is a part of the Scandinavian mentality, absolutely. The Jante law is essentially about bullying. It's essentially of the rule of the incompetent through social exclusion. The Jante law is the jocks beating up the smart kids, just because they are not jocks.

  • Hjertekirurg

    As a Danish physician "exiled" to work in the US due to what could be perceived as the forces of the Jante Law, I totally agree with Shannon and her comment to Mr. Srinivasan about the "crippling taxation" in Denmark. After having been salaried with benefits in a supposedly highly regarded, well-paid specialty for the first 7 of my 12 years here, I am now in what can best be described as private practice, facing what I would call the US version of "crippling taxation", i.e. staggering malpractice insurance premiums, rapidly rising health insurance premiums for me and my family, not to mention the looming threat of losing the latter because I would then by denied insurance because of a "pre-existing" condition, which incidentally does not prevent me from working 70-80 hours a week, and being available 24/7. When I add all these "non tax" items up I pay more of my income here than I would in Denmark and I would not have to be in constant fear of losing my health benefits, a situation which is probably very foreign to the likes of Mr. Srinivasan. Here is some food for thought for Mr. Srinivasan: Annual health care spending in the US is $2.3 trillion, $700 billion of which is considered "wasteful spending" i.e. used on practicing defensive medicine, ordering unnecessary tests etc. The latter amount could be used to cover the 30-40 million people in the US who at any given time are without health insurance, not to mention the 10-12 million undocumented immigrants who rely on taxpayer funded emergency rooms and free clinics for their health care. I think I would take both the "crippling taxes" and the Jante Law over the US system any time. And then I haven't even mentioned the declining quality of US education.

  • Karelian

    Very nice article but I am afraid mr Sarayu Srinivasan has misunderstood the meaning of Janteloven. The secret of Scandinavia is being concious about it, and in courage to work against it

  • Anonymous

    To those who "totally agree with equality or whatever", keep in mind that Janteloven isn't something anyone takes pride in but rather an author's description of the Scandinavian way of keeping down those who think they know better or are better.

    So if anything, the accomplishments made by Scandinavians are made in spite of Janteloven, not because of it.

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Nice article that highlights the achievements of Nordic countries. Also, it is important to remember that they have successfully commercialized many of these technologies and thus represent a unique model outside of Silicon Valley. 

  • Shannon

    Nice article, and I appreciate the expression of the benefits of Janteloven. As an American who has been living in Denmark for several years, it never ceases to delight me that Danes equate personal freedom and well being with collective freedom and well being, including the belief that I benefit when those around me have equal access to health care, education and membership in society. Americans could gain a great deal from this kind of wisdom.

    Just a minor quip: You call taxation "cripplingly heavy" but then mention the comparative affluence. I have never paid such high tax,or paid so much for books, lattes, clothing, as I do in Denmark, yes. Yet, I have never had such an excess of expendable income. It's like magic money! Think about it: no college debt, no intense pressure to save for retirement (unless you want supplementary retirement). Stores close early Saturdays and stay closed Sundays - I hardly have a chance to spend my money. I am being paid 2.5 times my prior US salary to BE A PHD STUDENT in Denmark right now! A position that usually puts Americans, who might be in their prime years as earners, into the poorhouse. So let's not be too quick to label higher tax (which really is only about 8-10% higher for me here than in the US), an evil.

  • mesj

    Totally agree on "janteloven". As a foreigner living in denmark, I have never felt inferior to my danish bosses/colleagues whether they're leading consultants, doctors or medical technologies. Coming from a society like yours, the janteloven is a breath of fresh air for me.

  • Stevens

    Yes, you can add Pirate Bay, Wordfeud, Angry Birds and Spotify to your list of Scandinavian-originated software that all in some way have an egalitarian mission.

  • Magnus

    If there is any implicit law, it is that you shoudln't look down on someone because they are not as good as you. Feel free to be proud of your accomplishments when you visit us ;).

  • Lennart Regebro

    Kurt, no it's not "different from you and also good". The Jantelaw is "Different from us, therefore bad". This article confuses Janteloven with egalitarianism. Both exist in Scandinavia, but they are not the same thing at all. If anything, Janteloven is anti-egalitarian.

  • kurt_gielen

    Magnus, is it "not as good as you" or "different from you, and also good"?

    I've been living in Norway for 1,5 years now and this article describes my feelings in a perfect way.

  • leesean

    I spent some time studying in Sweden. Sometimes Jantelagen (the Swedish equivalent of the Danish "Janteloven") has a negative connotation of "mediocre." There is another Swedish cultural term "lagom" which means "just right" or "just the right amount" which also evokes this idea of equality. 

  • iluuuk

    Nice article. I'm about to get "Janteloven" tattooed on one of my butt cheeks :D I lived in Sweden for a year and I realized this behaviour, but only on a society level, never on an individual level. The finnish people I met, though, stroke me as pure-Janteloven kind of guys.
    Thanks

  • Rickmajzor

    Great article, but your comment on "cripplingly heavy taxation" is misguided...99% of Americans would fare better under their system, with free high education, health care, and family-friendly social policies