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Science + Tech

Idea #10: The Reinvention of Nearly Everything

How open ideas, venture collectivism and the hacker ethic are changing the world.

Phillip Smith 1 Jan

Phillip Smith is a digital publishing expert. He currently works to advance the field of "news innovation" through Mozilla and The Tyee.

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Illustration by Jessie Donaldson.

[Editor's note: This is the last of The Tyee's Inspiring Ideas for 2013 series, all of which are collected here.]

You may not have noticed it, but we're in the middle of a renaissance. There's a global movement underway to question the very foundations that we have built modern society on.

This movement wants to re-think almost everything we know through the lens of what's possible today. It will start with something as innocent as a new lightbulb, and might -- just possibly -- change the course of everything else in the process.

In the recent past, if you wanted to learn something new you were probably told to go to school. Of course, there's no guarantee the registrar will let you in.

You were thinking of starting a new business? Go to the bank, they would advise. Of course, there's no guarantee the bank manager will like your business plan and give you the loan you need.

Want to save the world, or house the homeless? Go to a big charity and try to convince them of your plan. Good luck with that.

This is the way things have been done before.

This is not the way things will be done in the future. Not for everything, at least.

To understand this story of the future, you have to understand the story of the past. It starts in a familiar but unlikely place: online video and, yes, TED Talks.

This renaissance will be streamed and curated

As movements usually do, this one began with engaged people doing smart stuff: talking about ideas, developing prototypes and demonstrations, trying to get their message out to the like-minded. Only, this time, there was one major difference: the gatekeepers at the doors of mass communication disappeared.

Successful video distribution sites like YouTube and Vimeo made it possible for people to broadcast their ideas instantly to a huge global audience. Never before in human history have ideas moved so quickly. Sure, there have long been champions of "open data" and "open knowledge," but the key here is video. Today you can sit down in front of your computer, look into the camera, and speak to the world.

This much you probably already know.

However, when anyone can broadcast themselves, inevitably, everyone does. This led to a signal-versus-noise challenge: highly-useable broadcast technology, no gatekeepers, huge audience, but no equivalent of a "TV Guide" for good ideas. The seminal moment -- connecting ideas to idea-seeking audience -- came in 2006 when the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference decided to "open" the TED experience to anyone, by posting the talks online.

Instantly successful in finding a hungry audience, the TED conference expanded the pool of ideas by opening their process even further in 2009 with the TEDx series of events, which are produced locally in more than 130 countries around the world. Once a very exclusive event -- costing several thousand dollars to attend -- and with very limited speaking opportunities, the TED movement is now a global knowledge-exchanging network that has taught us the power of ideas, delivered quickly, in a compelling format.

For many, it was a groundbreaking moment for the Internet. Presenting ideas would never be the same again. We have levelled up.

But ideas alone don't change the world...

Hackers and makers come of age

At the same time that these big ideas were crossing the globe instantly and finding their audience, the Internet was becoming massively efficient at bringing together the kinds of people who like to build things, physical things, just as much, if not more, than talk ideas. Let's call those people "makers" and "hackers."

As Wayne Macphail said in The Tyee not long ago: "Maker Culture? That's coders, fabricators, foodies, artists, educators, activists, citizen and even scientists grabbing the do-it-yourself ethic with both hands and changing our world in the process."

What makes these DIYers different than, say, the hobbyists of the past, is, as Macphail continued, "They're making a point of sharing what they've learned, what they've made, and why. Often, for free."

"Makers are responding directly, locally to globalization, commercialization, copyright and central command and control."

The breakthrough moment for the maker-hacker movement was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster of 2011.

After an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, the power plant began leaking radiation. Nearby residents were frightened and the government was not releasing much information about radiation levels. On top of all of this, the commercial supply of Geiger counters had dried up, making it difficult for concerned citizens to do their own measurements.

Three friends, located in different cities around the world, connected instantly by Skype, turned a conversation into an idea, an idea into a plan, a plan into prototypes, and -- with the help of more than 600 "venture collectivists" who invested almost $40,000 in 30 days through the project-based fundraising website Kickstarter, a website that puts a video pitch at the heart of any funding appeal -- were able to activate a global network of makers (Hackerspaces and FabLabs, to be specific) to produce radically improved Geiger counters that were then delivered to a network of on-the-ground activists in Japan who began mapping the country's radiation levels and releasing the data openly, publicly and in real time.

Fukushima was the coming of age story for a movement of hackers that refused to wait for permission to fix something they saw as a pressing problem: passionate people committed to using their ability to rapidly build things -- software, hardware, and networks -- to respond to the growing challenges facing the earth and its inhabitants.

The conspiracy of radical positivity

Thomas Homer Dixon argued in The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization that humanity does not have to worry about climate change, peak oil, or regional political instability in isolation, but -- instead -- should prepare for the likelihood that they will all conspire and happen at once. On the flip side, this is exactly what's happening in the world of people trying to change the world for the better: not just "open ideas," or rapid iteration and innovation, or massive collaboration, or the application of the "hacker ethic," but all of it at once. While everything is getting exponentially worse, there's also the potential for things to get exponentially and radically better.

It's a positive feedback loop at the same scale in which we talk about the warming of the oceans: the rapid innovation in core technologies -- smaller, faster, components -- which then fuel new innovations in other areas (Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, called these "adjacent possibles"). Those innovations in turn contribute to new ways of thinking about pre-existing problems. Those ideas iterate rapidly over the Internet. Sites like work to curate and promote those ideas; sites like Kickstarter use video to improve the ideas and build a community around them, and sites like Instructables work to disseminate them back out to a growing global community of DIY enthusiasts and hackers, who then feed the results back again via the Internet. All in the blink of an eye.

The result is potentially world-changing technological outcomes. For example, new hardware like the incredibly small and inexpensive Arduino "open-source electronics prototyping platform" or the Raspberry Pi, a palm-sized Linux-powered computer, are being used to inexpensively prototype new products, and to rapidly experiment with new ideas. Similar advances in technology are making it possible for inventors in 2012 to radically re-think the lightbulb. This approach -- ideas to prototype, prototype to community-funding -- is being used to push the limits of what we've believed possible, and literally bring the future to today with projects like Formlab's "Form 1," a (relatively) affordable desktop 3D printer.

Rocket boosters on a ladybug

This positive feedback loop keeps reverberating, from ideas to things, and from improved things back to improved ideas. People all over the planet are seeking to take small ideas to a massive audience, or to make massive ideas smaller, more understandable, and -- ultimately -- more useful.

At one end of this spectrum are initiatives like the Khan Academy. Started as a small idea to teach math over the Internet, the Khan Academy is now a massively ambitious project to provide "a free world-class education for anyone anywhere." Take an idea like this, mix in a global audience via a video sharing site like YouTube, then stir in a sizeable financial grant from Google, and you've basically put rocket boosters on a ladybug. The world has not seen this kind of rapid, anarchistic, exponential innovation before, and we've yet to really understand the impact this could have on our society.

At the other end of the spectrum is creative destruction: take the world as it is today -- with all of our advances in knowledge, science, and a globally connected neural network known as the Internet -- and use it as a sledge hammer to knock down the pillars that we've built our modern-day society on. While some may seek to reinvent something as simple, yet revolutionary, as the lightbulb, others are more radical in their ambitions -- they want to change the fundamental way that people think about the world around them.

Bret Victor is one of these radicals. Educated at Berkeley and Caltech, he quickly blazed a path to Apple where he "designed the initial user interface concepts for iPad, iPod Nano, and half a dozen experimental hardware platforms." No slouch (and clearly a bit of an overachiever), Mr. Victor has set out on a lifelong journey to bend to world to his own ideas of how it should work: his Zen-like motto "There is only a vision of how mankind should be, and the relentless resolve to make it so. The rest is details."

His latest journey is to "kill math" as we know it. What started as a passion for pushing the envelope in user interfaces -- the way people interact with complex systems -- has become an obsession with how interfaces can open up completely new opportunities for creative expression. For example, in computer programming a programmer will routinely type numeric values into their program and then run the program to verify the results, and if the results are not quite right, the programmer will go back and adjust the numbers and run the program again. This is how programming has been done for decades, but Mr. Victor sees this process as a creativity-limiting constraint that is an artifact of from the early days of computing, and he wants to destroy it.

The alternative that he presents is an experience of programming that is "alive," where the program runs as the programmer writes it, where the result is visible directly and immediately, and where the program is infinitely malleable and adjustable in very tactile ways. Pull a slider here, and your program adjusts a certain way; turn a dial there, and your program evolves in a way you might not have thought of before. The best part is that you can see the program evolve before your eyes. It's the land of the happy, and potentially ground-breaking, accident.

What kind of impact would this have on science? On medicine? On engineering? Potentially, the impact could be as large as providing a world-class education to everyone, anywhere. One thing is certain, however, and that is that we live in a unique time of human history where the pursuit of new ideas and novel inventions is possible, and has also been radically democratized and exponentially accelerated.

Of course, there's probably a downside. Crazy ideas like shooting reflectors into space to stop global warming or iron pellets into the ocean show that not every idea is a good one. But, if this rate of innovation continues, and with a sprinkle of good luck, we might just wake up to a radically different world this new year's day.  [Tyee]

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