Every innovation starts with an act of insubordination. So said tech entrepreneur, futurist, and scientist Walter De Brouwer. “It starts with saying ‘no,’ with disrespect. If you respect and listen to everything, there is no innovation.” Indeed, he noted, his maxim applies as well to mankind’s Biblical first act of insubordination in the Garden of Eden as it does to the 1960s counterculture that was the progenitor of the personal computer.
But does an insubordinate counterculture still drive innovation in today’s cyberculture? It’s a question that a panel pondered at the Techonomy 2013 conference in Tucson last week. De Brouwer, who is presently CEO of health-tech company Scanadu, joined author Stewart Brand, tech journalist Ina Fried, and Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick for an after-dinner fireside chat about the culture that’s now driving IT’s evolution.
The group debated whether the revolutionary ideals of the Homebrew Computer Club and the Whole Earth Catalog are still at play, or if those who valued free information and “power to the people” have grown up and become part of a complacent establishment.
“A lot of that heritage is in our hands every day using computers and the Internet,” Kirpatrick said. “So where are we going in terms of ethos and motivation?”
Stewart Brand, known as a visionary of the DIY movement and for coining the term “personal computer,” pointed to Berkeley professor AnaLee Saxenian’s 1996 comparison of the tech cultures of Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 to illustrate the way engineers around Berkeley and Stanford gave “permission to each other to try stuff without any resources at all. Everything was about lowering thresholds, empowering individuals.”
Today, he said, the Internet reflects that pre-commercial generosity and comfort with moving from company to company. And, he argued, that spirit lives on: in cultural phenomena such as the Burning Man festival, where young artists and technologists collaborate to create and erase a new city every year in the Nevada desert; and in sharing economy communities like San Francisco’s SoMo that feature co-working spaces and car-sharing programs in rejection of overconsumption of limited resources.
Hand-in-hand with the sharing economy is the crowdsourcing of knowledge that was once the domain of experts. Fried, a columnist for AllThingsD, noted that “emblematic of how knowledge and learning have shifted” is today’s acceptance of Wikipedia as a better resource than the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“What made the encyclopedia great is that you had an article written by one person who really knew what the hell they were talking about,” she said. “Wikipedia is written by a whole bunch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. But it turns out that collectively, a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about know more than one person who spent their lifetime researching it.”
The question follows: if Wikipedia can be better than an encyclopedia, can crowdsourced healthcare be better than a well-trained doctor? De Brouwer predicted that as the quantified self-movement and personalized medicine unfold and put the technology for medical assessment into individuals’ hands, medicine will be the next frontier to be revolutionized by acts of insubordination.
“The map of medicine is made by doctors. The map will be rewritten by the people,” De Brouwer said. The changes wrought in society by such innovation, he said, “might be even bigger than” those brought about by the Internet and PCs.
But Kirkpatrick, who recently described Sean Parker’s multimillion dollar wedding in a Vanity Fair article, said that such resource-sharing, power-to-people notions are “diametrically in contrast to another set of ideas that we’ve been hearing the last few days.” Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is worth $600 million today, Kirkpatrick said. “It’s the idea that all of these apps and startups are going to be rich—money is seen to drive so much of the motivation.”
We should not ignore that a big part of what Facebook, the iconic company of the sharing and social revolution, does is make money, agreed Fried. Making money off a lack of privacy has been fueled, she said, by a generation that largely doesn’t care about privacy. “They don’t think they’ve ever had it and they’re not terribly interested in it.”
But Brand said he’s more concerned about how tech is helping the disadvantaged than he is with technocrats getting filthy rich. “I don’t give a damn that people are becoming millionaires. The issue is not ‘Is the top getting super-duper rich?’ but ‘Is the bottom getting out of poverty?’ Going from next-to-nothing to twice that is so much huger than going from being a one-billionaire to a two-billionaire,” Brand said. And, thanks to the sharing and social revolution, “that’s going on like mad now.”
Meanwhile, he said, “the great thing is we’re getting better rich people out of this. The rich are younger. They know better than to screw their kids up by dumping money on them like a dynasty. They’re out going into space like Bezos and Branson and … there’s now more privately owned managed wild land in private hands. People are buying up places and letting it be a wilderness.”
Just who is the counterculture today, then? “Makers. Across the board,” said Brand, referring to a group that includes not just tool, technology, and craft makers, but biohackers and tens of thousands of DIY synthetic biologists who use BioBricks to create new life forms. Makers, he said, “like to rip the back off of whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off. It’s the old impulse of defying authority.”
Unlike in the 1960s, in the 2010s sharing and the Internet have created the opportunity for instant cultural phenomena, he said. “There’s a capability of moving fast in a large coherent way … that is partly technical ability to communicate and find each other, but it’s also partly cultural—a comfort with living that way.”
Fried said that today’s makers have access to build what they can imagine. “It’s the ability to say, ‘I have a great idea. I have the tools. I have the ability to raise money.’”
And where their ideas relate to extending life, slowing aging, or curing the diseases of the Baby Boomer generation, Brand said, “There’s a lot of money driving the technology even faster than digital technology [from] the people who want this to come in their lifetime.”
In a sense, then, in their attempt to say “no” to death, those insubordinate 1960s counterculturalists are still driving today’s technology ethos.