Matt Novak (aka Paleofuture) is a historian and blogger who writes about the history of innovation and the history of the way we imagine the future. A couple of weeks ago, at South by Southwest, he gave a fascinating presentation that I wanted you guys to hear more about.
The basic thesis: Tesla vs. Edison — UR DOIN IT WRONG.
Whether you think Tesla > Edison or Edison > Tesla, Novak says you're missing something important. In reality, technology isn't shaped by one guy who had one great idea and changed the world. Instead, it's a messy process, full of flat-out failures and not-quite-successes, and populated by many great minds who build off of and are inspired by each other's work. This is about more than just getting history right. Letting go of The Great Man paradigm has implications for everything from copyright law, to how we go about innovation today. When we focus too much on Great Men, Novak says, we lose sight of what innovation actually looks like ... and we impede our ability to build the future.
In Bruce Sterling's barn-burning closing keynote for SXSW 2013, he confronts the realities of disruption -- that disruption leads to destruction. Our wonderful things destroy other wonderful things. The future composts the past. We roast the 20th century over our bonfire, let's not shamefully pretend that we did it by accident. Let's eat our kill.
I thought you'd be interested in something we are helping with at SXSW this weekend. a group of folks are taking advantage of unlicensed radio spectrum to provide high-speed backhaul to local WiFi access points all over SXSW. In Austin, there are 14 of these open channels using whitespace that are available. we are leveraging this. on Tuesday, the FCC will close comments on its plan to auction off many of these "whitespaces. the 'We Heart Wifi' initiative is collecting signatures on the following petition. Even if folks aren't at SXSW, they can sign on:
To all FCC Commissioners:
Please follow through on your proposal to open up a large slice of high-quality spectrum for open networks. Doing so would help create the competition necessary to extend more high-speed broadband—including 'super WiFi' and other future innovations—to more people."
Happy Mutant (and EFF-Austin co-founder) Jon Lebkowsky has a great piece in the new Austin Chronicle about Aaron Swartz, privacy, copyright, and the future of computers:
It's an odd predicament, seeing your customer as the enemy. Attempts by the music industry to protect its control of distribution have risked alienation of a customer base that has a multiplicity of channels for free and low-cost alternatives via cyberspace, including a bazillion "Internet radio" channels; online services like Pandora, Last.FM, and Spotify; savvy artists distributing their own tunes online; and, of course, various file-sharing sites like the Pirate Bay. Even with the "pirate" sources out of the way, record labels would be hurting, because they no longer control distribution. The same is true for all media. Distribution channels are more ad hoc, product is abundant, it's cheap or free, and competition for whatever dollars are still flowing is fierce.
Aaron sez, "SXSW Create is a free and open to the public event during SXSW Interactive that will showcase local and national hackers, makers, and creators. It is a hands-on, interactive, and exciting event intended to showcase creativity and innovation that will inspire and encourage others to create themselves. It is located at 101 Red River, directly behind the Austin Convention Center."
If you're headed to SXSW, you should really get all your friends in a taxi and ride out to Toy Joy and then eat some of the spectacular barbecue at Ruby's BBQ, kitty-corner from the shop. It's pretty much the perfect outing, and at least as cool (if not cooler) than anything you'll actually see presented on the conference floor.
Wearing a cheerleader’s uniform, a tutu or a simple thong, accessorized with a feather boa or tiara, Mr. Cochran was an eye-catching figure in a city where eccentricity is nothing special. A popular bumper sticker, “Keep Austin Weird,” is the rallying cry of a place that resists the civic homogenization that can turn every town into pretty much every other town. “When people see the bumper sticker, they think of Leslie,” said Debbie Russell, a local activist and friend.
On CNN, Doug Gross has a good account of Kevin Smith's SXSW presentation on how he became a podcaster and weaned himself off the "heroin" of movie studio money, going direct to his fans instead for advertising, merch sales and sold-out houses when he toured. This being CNN, they've got a lot of [expletive] marks where Smith is saying "fuck" in his charmingly innocent way.
Smith said he decided to take advantage of his access to celebrities and gift of gab to launch a new project. And he deployed a technique he said has always served him well: do what you love and what you're good at, then figure out how to make money doing it.
And that led to "SModcast," a weekly podcast that he and friend/co-producer Scott Mosier launched in 2007 and do to this day.
It was free. But as its online audience grew, the opportunities to make money arose.
"People would tweet left and right: 'You put out so many free podcasts; how can I pay it back?' " said Smith, who has more than 2 million followers on Twitter. "I was like, 'Go buy a T-shirt' and they were like, 'Cool.' "
Then came paid advertising. (The first sponsor notoriously being adult product Fleshlight). Then a paid version of the podcast, "SModcost," which contains bonus features but no ads.
Over the weekend, I noticed that David Gallagher of The New York Timesobserved in Austin, "Homeless people have been enlisted to roam the streets wearing T-shirts that say 'I am a 4G hotspot.”
A number of other folks I follow on Twitter who are attending the annual SXSW event there mentioned it, too, with concern. Here's the project's website, detailing their system to PayPal each "homeless hotspot" person directly. "We suggest $2 per 15 minutes."
The Homeless Hotspots website frames this as an attempt "to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations." There's a wee little difference, though. Those newspapers are written by homeless people, and they cover issues that affect the homeless population.
By contrast, Homeless Hotspots are helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure. It's like it never occurred to the people behind this campaign that people might read street newspapers. They probably just buy them to be nice and throw them in the garbage.
This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.