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Published: November 24, 2009
 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57


Fernando Flores Wants to Make You an Offer

One uncontested fact is that the years of imprisonment turned Flores toward philosophy. As security around him gradually eased, Flores’s wife and friends smuggled books to his cell. With endless time, he read and reread, devouring the works of the German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jürgen Habermas; of the pioneering Chilean neurobiologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela; and, perhaps most significantly, of John Searle, a Berkeley professor and former student of J.L. Austin. Searle had refined Austin’s concepts into a practical set of phrases, coining the term speech acts to describe them.

Academic Entrepreneurship

Flores’s fate did not go unnoticed outside Chile. The San Francisco chapter of Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience and successfully negotiated his release in 1976 by affirming that he had a job lined up in the United States and would thus be leaving Chile. An Amnesty member with ties to Stanford University helped create a one-year research position in computer science for him there, even though Flores’s undergraduate degree was in civil engineering.

Soon after landing at Stanford, Flores became friends with Terry Winograd, a leading light in the early days of artificial intelligence research, who introduced him to John Searle and to Hubert Dreyfus, a well-known Berkeley professor and Heidegger scholar, famous for his in-depth criticisms of the field of artificial intelligence. Dreyfus pulled strings to get Flores accepted into the graduate program in interdisciplinary studies at Berkeley. Winograd also brought Flores to the R&D institute SRI International and to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, where the earliest local-area networks and graphic user interfaces were being developed.

“Computer science was not my field, but I could smell that I was in the right place,” says Flores. “I thought computers would be in networks, and networks would be about communication, not just data. I knew there was something fundamental going on, and I had the intuition that these people were wrong about computers and communication. They were doing something nice, but ungrounded. Suddenly something clicked.”

He wrote his doctoral dissertation at Berkeley on the “office of the future” (as it was then often called). He foresaw people communicating en masse through computer networks while software coordinated team efforts. It was 1982, seven years before Tim Berners-Lee began work on the World Wide Web, two years before Apple launched the Macintosh, and a year before 3Com built the first Ethernet adaptor to link PCs in a network. During the next few years, Flores and Winograd undertook several collaborative projects, including their book on the human impact of artificial intelligence, titled Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design (Addison Wesley, 1986), which would become a work of long-standing influence in the field.

They also started a software company called Action Technologies, to turn Flores’s dissertation concept into computer code. One early investor was Werner Erhard, creator of the est (Erhard seminar training) program, who adapted the speech acts ideas into his own Forum training programs (a successor to est). Flores and Winograd, meanwhile, gathered a small dream team of programmers, including James Gosling, who would go on to achieve fame as the father of the Java programming language. In the mid-1980s, Action Technologies released a program called the Coordinator that organized office life around linguistic distinctions. An e-mail message had to be explicitly labeled as a “request” or an “offer,” and a meeting added to employees’ electronic calendars would be termed a “conversation for action” or a “conversation for possibilities,” depending on the intent. All of these actions were synchronized and linked across the network so people could easily coordinate scheduling and other details. This novel feature would eventually become a common function in e-mail and scheduling programs like Microsoft Outlook.

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  1. Chalmers Brothers, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness (New Possibilities Press, 2004): An accessible guide to using speech acts in the workplace and elsewhere.
  2. Lawrence M. Fisher, “The Ambassador from the Next Economy,” s+b, Autumn 2006: A Creative Mind profile of Joichi Ito, the Japanese “venture activist” who sees World of Warcraft as a model of organizational design.
  3. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Shambhala, 1987): Underlying Flores’s work, and that of many others, is an emerging understanding of cognition as evolutionary and behavior as plastic.
  4. John R. Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge University Press, 2008): Scholarly, seminal essays representing 40 years of research and insight.
  5. Robert C. Solomon and Fernando Flores, Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life (Oxford University Press, 2001): Flores’s most recent book, coauthored with philosopher Robert Solomon, on the role of trust in modern society.
  6. Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity (MIT Press, 1997): Guide for cultivating strategies and skills to be a more effective participant in larger systems, like businesses and societies.
  7. Abriendo Juego, Abriendo Mundos, Fernando Flores’s blog, posted entirely in Spanish.
  8. For more thought leaders, see the s+b website at: