From left, David Kirkpatrick, Steward Brand, Walter De Brouwer, Ina Fried. (All photos by Asa Mathat)
Co-founder, Global Business Network
Walter De Brouwer
Founder and CEO, Scanadu
Author, Beyond Binary blog and Senior Editor, AllThingsD
Founder and CEO, Techonomy
If the counterculture of the late 50’s and 60’s was the progenitor of the PC industry and all it led to, what kind of “culture” is driving the evolution of information technology today? Are those revolutionary ideals still at play, or have those counterculture values grown up and become a complacent establishment?
Kirkpatrick: Hello, everybody. I’ve been talking up this session all day. I hope that I—we—deliver. I can’t believe it won’t be interesting, given who’s up here with me. Let me just start with Stewart, because there’s a bunch of things about Stewart that make me excited to have him here. First of all, the title of the session, which might have seemed opaque to many of you, What the Dormouse Says Now, it was really a reference to an opaquely-titled book that’s one of my favorite books, by John Markoff, who originally we had hoped would moderate this session—he moderated something for us last year. He wrote a book called What the Dormouse Said, which was about the PC’s roots in the counterculture and how pretty much a huge percentage of what we know of as modern technology really emerged from basically hippies messing around in the ’60s in Silicon Valley. And one of the things the book notes is that Stewart named the personal computer. He was the first person to ever use that phrase, ‘personal computer.’ And he was around all that stuff, and so he’s got a pretty good perspective on how we got where we are today and where we might be going from here. And I can tell you that he’ll say interesting things about that, because I had a good chat with him on the phone about it.
But I also want to say one other thing about Stewart, which I’m not sure he’ll remember unless I might’ve recounted this to him on another occasion. But before Techonomy got started, I was sitting next to you at a dinner, at a hotel right by the Golden Gate Bridge, and I was talking to you about geoengineering, which is something that Stewart’s an expert on and was talking a lot about at the time—or he wrote about it anyway. And I said to him, “Yeah, but, Stewart, what if we put too much sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere?” and he looks at me with this big smile on this face and he says, “Oh, we’ll make mistakes.” It’s like, well, but that’s like the planet you’re talking about. But the thing that I loved about it was, you know, he has such a pragmatic and positive view of what’s possible with technology, and that comment, “Oh, we’ll make mistakes,” said so jollily, actually was one of the things that, bizarrely, crystalized in my mind what Techonomy could be, as a conference and as a concept. Even though you don’t think of geoengineering necessarily as related to my ostensible interest in the Internet and all that, those of you who were here last year will recall that one of our most successful sessions last year was on geoengineering. So we absolutely think of that as part of the tech in Techonomy is at all the macro and the micro scale as well—and we’ll hear a lot about the micro scale, I think tonight.
So anyway, Stewart gets a lot of credit for a lot of stuff, and he’s just such a big picture guy. He even started the Long Now Foundation because he wanted more of us to think big picture. So, enough said about him, but we’re really happy that he’s up here.
Next to him, Walter de Brouwer, who’s currently running a company called Scanadu, which, as he describes it, is making the Star Trek tricorder in reality, which is where you sort of scan yourself and you know whether you’re healthy or not. And he’s currently waiting to get FDA approval on something that will take us in that direction as an app, basically.
But not only that—and he’ll talk about some of this, probably, in the discussion, but just so that I can get the chronology right, he started as a—you’re Dutch or Belgian?
De Brouwer: Belgian.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. But you were living in the Netherlands, right?
De Brouwer: Yes.
Kirkpatrick: But anyway, he was a pirate radio guy, and then he was a phone phreaker. Then he started a magazine called Wave, which was like a European Mondo 2000 back in the—when way that?
De Brouwer: That was in ’92.
Kirkpatrick: How many people here know what Mondo 2000 was? It was a very wild magazine of technology futurism, with a little bit of psychedelia thrown in. In any case, that was the same with Walter’s magazine. He was doing a lot of psychedelics and publishing a magazine—
De Brouwer: Clinical trials.
Kirkpatrick: Clinical trials. But then he went and got a PhD in semiotics and started several companies, including an ISP and a bank. Then he moved to Silicon Valley and he’s done a few things, and now he’s doing this highly reputable Scanadu app thing. So he’s moved from less reputable roots to the establishment or something.
Finally, Ina, who’s up here just because I think she is one of the great journalists of tech and she’s been doing it for a long time and I think she adds perspective, which I think we all need, and I’m hoping she’ll add it to this discussion. I have no idea where the discussion’s going to go, honestly, but that’s part of the charm of it, I hope.
But, again, so we started with this notion of Markoff’s—you know, he really documented that the PC emerged from the sensibility of a bunch of hippies. And that’s meaningful to me—and I’m going to shut up in a minute and let these other people talk, but it’s meaningful to me because when I started covering tech, in ’91, I really didn’t even want to do it. A Literally true statement, as my wife will recall. But almost immediately, I started thinking, “This is incredible, I love this beat!” And it was because somehow the old hippie in me—and I was kind of a hippie and a punk and all that stuff. I realized, subconsciously or something, I just felt like these people that I was writing about shared my values, despite the fact that they were all infinitely more wealthy than I was.
So it was very meaningful to me when John wrote that book and sort of explained that—I knew little bits and pieces of it. But, so the question now is, okay, if those are the roots—and we still have a lot of that heritage in our hands every day, when we’re using computers and the Internet, and so much of what has come after was deeply, deeply influenced by those innovations from the ’60s and ’70s. So where are we going in terms of ethos and motivation? That’s sort of what I’m especially interested in talking about. You know, it’s after dinner, we’ve had a few drinks and…
So I want to start with you, Stewart, just to ask you, given that question, what would you say?
Brand: I think we’re talking about a cultural framework of some kind that is at the root of the emergence of platforms, a series of platforms. And actually, three books were written about the phenomenon that David was talking about. Besides “What the Dormouse Said,” there’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture” by Fred Turner—
Kirkpatrick: Which is very much about you, right?
Brand: It is very much about me.
Kirkpatrick: That was a much earlier book, yes.
Brand: It actually came a little later—well, the earlier important book, of interest to everybody, I think, is AnnaLee Saxenian’s “Regional Advantage.” Because what Anna did was compare what happened around Route 20 around Boston, back when mini computers were the emerging platform, and what happened in not just Silicon Valley but the Bay Area, which could go from platform to platform comfortably, while back when mini computers died, nothing else replaced them. And what she was looking at is what is the nature of the way basically younger workers in the Bay Area, young engineers especially, relate to each other, to the world and so on. The way I put it is that people go to New York to succeed, they go to Los Angeles to succeed and they go to San Francisco to be happy, and if they succeed along the way, great. That’s still in place, I think. So that regional thing that happened in the midpeninsula, where you had the outliers of Stanford—Stanford Industrial Park, Hewlett Packard, Stanford AI Lab, SRI, where Doug Engelbart was starting to be in bloom in the late ’60s, and then the “Whole Earth Catalog” was there, and you had this bunch of people who gave permission to each other to try stuff, without any resources at all. This was a pre-commercial set of things. You know, we were focused on IBM as the enemy or something like that, but it was—the contrast, that would be another interesting book to make from that period, would be what happened around Berkeley in the ’60s and what happened around Stanford in the ’60s. Around Berkeley, it was free speech movement, power to the people. Around Stanford, it was “Whole Earth Catalog,” Steve Wozkniak, Steve Jobs, people like that, and they were just power to people. They just wanted to power anybody who was interested, not the people. Well, it turns out there is no, probably, the people. So the political blind alley that Berkeley went down was interesting, they were all taking the same drugs, the same length of hair, but the stuff came out of the Stanford area, I think because it took a Buckminster Fuller access to tools angle on things.
So does that sort of thing carry on? The argument of these books is that there is a continuity from then to now, the Internet reflects a lot of the pre-commercial generosity and comfort of moving from company to company and don’t worry if you fail and all that sort of thing, which became sort of endemic to the area—
Kirkpatrick: Becomes actually instantiated in the Internet itself, the design.
Brand: Yes. And everything was about lowering thresholds, basically, and empowering individuals, empowering small groups, all that sort of thing. And the spirit lives on completely intact at Berkeley, to which a whole lot of tech people go, and there’s been more fruitful interaction between tech people and artists—which Burning Man is based on art—but they both are doing creativity, and so get together and 50,000 people make an instant city and then erase it from the planet. It’s just the cool kind of thing that both artists and certain kinds of young tech people like to do.
Whether that—whether there’s new frameworks, new cultural frameworks like that coming along, I’m too old to say. I’m 75. But I can see how in San Francisco—
Kirkpatrick: I don’t believe that. But go ahead.
Brand: Okay. Sorry, 74. You’re right. There is a thing happening in the Bay Area which I think is pretty interesting, which is that the midpeninsula is basically just a whole series of suburbs: Palo Alto, Menlo Park—where we are, Mountain View—where Google is, and so on. And suddenly Market Street and South Market, South Park and so on, is getting a density of urban activity, where people don’t want cars and so they’re doing car sharing, where the coffee shops are the center of things, you don’t have to go to Buck’s to make a deal and drive some distance—
Fried: It still Buck’s, but it’s Starbucks.
Kirkpatrick: Buck’s was a coffee shop famously patronized by venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.
Brand: Yes. And Buck’s-like things are emerging I assume all up and down Market Street now. And so listen closely when Jeff West talks, I guess tomorrow, about the intensity that goes on in the city, because I think there’s an urbanization happening to tech now—you’ll see another version of it in Manhattan, I suspect—that may be part of the new framing. And if Jeff is right, and he is right about how cities intensify and accelerate things, what you’ll see is things moving even faster, not just the tech moving faster, but the cultural apparatus being comfortable with moving faster.
Kirkpatrick: Well, that’s not a bad start. Okay, there’s a lot of things that I could follow up on that, but let’s—Walter, you know, I gave a kind of brief summary of your bio, but talk a little bit about how you see your trajectory as a creative business starter/entrepreneur and tech industry participant and how you see what you’re doing now with Scanadu and focusing on health fitting into the history that led you there.
De Brouwer: Well, I came to live in America too late, actually. So I should have done it earlier. But, so in Europe, so there has been a big imitation since like when it was 10 or 15, the imitation of what happened in America, you know, in the free world. But what amazes me, now that I live here, is it’s actually everywhere the same, because, you know, we started antiestablishment and we started as hippies and then we became yippies, you know, and then we just became our dad with sport shoes on. So in the end, the evolution that we have gone through—and certainly of baby boomers is an interesting one, because everything we have done I think—so in everything I have done from innovation meant—and I tried to teach that to my people also. Innovation starts with acts of insubordination. It starts with saying no. It starts with disrespect. Because if you respect and if you listen to everything, well, then there is no innovation. So in every religious text, the first progress of mankind is an act of insubordination.
Now, we did that with, you know, phone phreaking, of course, against corporations, with pirate radio to, you know, for—you know, to bring rock and roll, especially radio. Pirate radio was actually the best one, because—
Kirkpatrick: The Napster of its day.
De Brouwer: It also attracted the most girls. But computers were of course like a logical—because we knew everything about that phone system already, and then here the Internet came from the phone system. So, for me it’s a logical continuation of everything we have done. But, you know, as baby boomers now, it’s—I think we have been inventing the future. I think it’s time to prevent it also a bit.
Kirkpatrick: Prevent? What do you mean? Why?
De Brouwer: Well, you know, I’m now talking about healthcare. You know, preventing our future.
Kirkpatrick: Ah, yes.
Brand: Preventing death.
Kirkpatrick: Extending life a little bit, yes.
De Brouwer: Yes. And so I think sometimes, if we look at—you know, I’ve seen personal computers coming on. I was a bit late in that, but personal computer magazines at the time were also actually pretty exciting. Now nobody thinks it’s romantic anymore to read the test of 14 printers. But it was at the time. And so then the Internet came, and of course, everyone afterward said like of course it was logical. But I think what’s now going to be, I think personal healthcare, that device in the hands of the people who can do their own medical readings, where they will—you know, because, again, it will be the territory and the map. Because the map of medicine is made by doctors. So—
Brand: Is that who you’re defying this time around?
De Brouwer: Yes. I think so. I think the map will be rewritten by the people, or medicine will be rewritten, and it will be, you know, like Wikipedia is better than Encyclopedia Britannica.
Kirkpatrick: The same will be true with medical knowledge, medical science, medical treatment.
De Brouwer: Yes. And it’s very important because, you know, like medicine and when—you know, it’s the intersection of I think Eros and Thanatos; it’s life and death. When you are in that intersection—all great poetry comes from that intersection. One time in your life you will find yourself in that intersection and you will think like, “Shit! I’m powerless.” And giving that power to the people, that’s going to be one—it might even be that everything that baby boomers have done is a footnote to what’s going to happen now with healthcare.
Kirkpatrick: What do you mean, ‘a footnote’?
De Brouwer: Well, you know, like how this is going to change society might even be bigger than Internet and personal computers, although it’s integrated in that.
Kirkpatrick: When you say ‘this,’ you mean the set of medical advances that will be possible because of the sort of bottom up healthcare revolution.
De Brouwer: Yes.
Kirkpatrick: And I know Stewart has some thoughts on that along those lines, so we’ll get to that in a second. But I want to hear from Ina, and I don’t even know really what to ask you, but what did you hear that you disagree with or you agree with?
Fried: Well, I want to pick up actually on something that Walter said, because I think it’s really true, but I think it’s really true, but I think it’s very nuanced. So the idea that Wikipedia is better than the encyclopedia I think really is emblematic of how knowledge and learning have shifted. Because I think it’s true, but when you look at it, what made an encyclopedia great was you had an article written by one person who really knew what the hell they were talking about. Wikipedia is actually written by tons of people who don’t know what the hell 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’s spent their lifetime researching it. And I think that’s one of several trends that’s part of this culture that you’re talking about. If you ask the question, if the PC was created by hippies and that generation, what cultural forces are creating today’s knowledge and things. I think one of them is a group, a generation that is highly connected, that has benefited from all that knowledge, but probably hasn’t read as much, isn’t as well educated, that on a lot of individual metrics hasn’t achieved in those same ways but perhaps doesn’t need to. I mean if Wikipedia can be better than the encyclopedia, the question is can crowd-sourced healthcare be better than a well-trained doctor? Boy, I hope so, because at some point I’m going to need a doctor and I hope they’re better trained than the guy editing comments on Wikipedia.
So I think that’s one piece of this. I think the other piece is, they take for granted what the previous generations have built, as all current generations have always done. So I think they’re ready to take everything that was built because it was possible and make it useable. So a lot of early computing is, “What could we possibly do with the technology?” and it was constrained by processing power and memory, and when you got a little more you could do a little more. This generation has more than they need on a lot of those metrics but is saying, “What can it do for me? Can it help me talk to my friends?” So all this social networking is a reflection of a generation that’s saying, “Great, thank you for all that stuff. Let me make it work for me.”
And then I think also, what Stewart was saying in terms of the sharing economy, I think there will be an increasing sense that there are a limited amount of resources, and I think this knowledge has only come across a little bit. But globally, we are kind of aware that resources are scarce and we haven’t really made the sort of changes, I don’t think, necessary to address global warming or that stuff. But there is this idea that maybe we could use our resources better. I think that’s an interesting one. I’m not sure where that goes, because the people that have the resources tend not to think it’s better to share them with everyone.
Brand: I would challenge that a little. I mean I think partly in following Peter Schwartz here, who has been following the big so-called debate about peak oil and peak coal and peak fossil fuels and so on, and he’s been saying all along, it’s not happening, it’s not going to happen. There’s all this more to discover—he worked for, well, he was at Shell for a long time and knew very well how much there was yet to discover. Instead, what is now happening is peak demand. And you see it in places like Europe, you see it in parts of the US economy. By and by, you get to a certain amount of stuff and it is too much stuff and you back off. And there’s a lot of the world which is getting the hell out of poverty, and they’re about to go through that sort of release of “You mean I can buy another thing? Hot dog, I will buy another thing.” And they will, and they’ll go through this period that now lots of the world has gone through of really what Buckminster Fuller was pushing all along, that you actually do more with less. Less material, less energy and less crap around. So we’ve got these oversized houses, there’s a bunch of them on the hill here. And people are discovering in town they can live in 270 square feet. And I love the work that came out of San Francisco the other day, some of these micro-apartments that are turning up, is that one lady said, “Well, you know, my apartment is my bedroom and my living room is the neighborhood.” That sounds like a cool neighborhood to live in, where they treat that shared room as their living room.
Kirkpatrick: Well, so far this has all been very high minded, and I want to go back to something that Ina—you’re in San Francisco, I’m in New York. I mean I love being a tech journalist in New York and I think the city thing has been happening there for like 200 years, so we definitely know why cities work. But, you know, your description of the ethos today, which I thought was interesting, is diametrically in contrast to another set of ideas that we’ve been hearing about the last few days with the Twitter IPO, Jack Dorsey’s worth $600 million now or whatever, the idea that all these app startups are going to be rich. You know, it’s like money is seen to drive so much of the motivation, but it isn’t even part of the taxonomy you just described. And yet, you’re around people getting rich all the time. How do you factor money into the way you just laid out the—
Fried: Well, I’m a journalist, so I tend to stay away from money.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, I always try to as a tech journalist, too.
Fried: But, no, I think it is very clear, and will be an important dynamic, this idea that—you know, I think Facebook is probably the iconic company of this sharing and social thing, and clearly, making money is a big part of what they do. And I lived in San Francisco for the first tech boom and I see many of the same patterns repeating themselves, and I certainly think it is the case that they’re—you know, wealth is attractive to I think a lot of people, and as a journalist I just may need to go in a different direction, but I think it is what created the last boom, there had to be people to fund it and stuff. So I think it is a factor. We haven’t gotten into it yet, but I think this idea that this generation, to a large degree, doesn’t really care about privacy, they don’t really think they’ve ever had it, they’re not terribly interested in it. There’s another group of people that says, “Well, I can make money off of your lack of privacy,” and I think that has fueled the economics of a lot of this current generation of companies.
Kirkpatrick: But do you presume that there’s still—I mean one thing I often argue with people about, and just like you, I have the privilege of knowing Gates and Zuckerberg, and for all of their wealth and other factors personality-wise, you know, they did not do it for the money. I mean that’s so obviously—you know, you don’t have to know them very well to see that. But you really do see it when you talk to them and you get to know them. They’re happy to be rich. You know, it’s certainly great to be the richest man in the world, and nobody’s going to turn that down. But Zuckerberg, I love to tell the story about how he turned down $4 billion when he was 22. You know, Steve Ballmer offered to buy Facebook for $15 billion and Zuckerberg would’ve been the richest 22-year-old in world history. He didn’t even consider accepting it.
So, you know, some of you might say, well, he was canny enough to know he’d be even richer if he held on, and that’s probably true in one sense. But I really think there is—among the most impactful entrepreneurs, there is some kind of higher motivation, which happily often—what are you laughing at?
Brand: Did you make a lot of really sound financial decisions when you were 22?
Kirkpatrick: No. Absolutely not. I was driving a taxi part-time when I was 22. Anyway, I don’t know where I was going with that.
Fried: You’re right about Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, but I think if you look at all the people, not specifically the people at Microsoft or Facebook, but there’s a large collection of people that tend to get close to those types of—
Kirkpatrick: —who do care about—
Fried: Who do care, right.
Kirkpatrick: But it’s the real impactful ones seem to be—they just have a bigger view, right? Or not?
Brand: They enjoy doing weird shit with their money. The great thing is we’re getting better rich people out of this. That’s true. They’re richer younger, they’ve still got all of their pizzazz, they don’t have a family, they know better than to screw their kids up with, you know, dumping money on them in some kind of dynasty. And so they’re out going into space, like Bezos and Richard Branson and so on, and—
Kirkpatrick: Buying the Washington Post.
Brand: And this is a case, if you pay a lot of attention to conservation these days, what I heard from the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy is that there’s now more managed wild land that is privately owned in the US than there is public. In other words, all the national parks, state parks and protected areas, all that stuff together is more in private hands. So people are just buying up places and letting it be wilderness. That’s pretty cool.
Kirkpatrick: That’s very cool.
Brand: That’s a public service.
Kirkpatrick: Since you’re talking, I want to have you continue saying some other things. If the counterculture created the PC back in the ’60s and ’70s, I mean who is the counterculture today? You can laugh at anything, but you have to explain your laughter.
Brand: I’m sorry. I know, I’m just being jolly with you.
Kirkpatrick: You just have to explain—
Brand: You’re the frowny guy and I’m the smiley guy.
Kirkpatrick: I like your jolliness, but you have to explain your laughter is all I’m saying. But I mean who—
Kirkpatrick: And be specific, what kind of makers?
Brand: Makers. They’re across the board.
Kirkpatrick: They are the disruptors now that are equivalent to the homebrew computer club?
Brand: One of the things they say about themselves is that we like to take whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off of, rip the back off and get our fingers in there and mess around. That’s the old impulse of basically defying authority and of doing it your way. And they all talk to each other, you know, have each other’s tools, and they’re all connected on Facebook and every other thing, so you get these instant cultural phenomena that can easily occur. And so—and you can do a city in three weeks and then erase it in a week, these various popup events—
Kirkpatrick: You mean like Burning Man?
Brand: Yes, like Burning Man. There’s a capability of moving fast in a large coherent way that makes the thing that we understood from Tom Malone a while back of the way you make film is you put together a team and they work together for six months or three months or whatever it is and they make the movie and then they disperse, then you do another team for another thing. It’s like that only so much faster. And that is partly technical, ability to communicate and find each other, but it’s also partly cultural, comfort with living that way. This is, there’s no tension involved anywhere in that process.
Fried: I just wanted to jump in on his first point, because I totally agree. To put the best case on today’s makers, one of the things they’re able to do is they’re able to look at the world, say, “This isn’t quite right, I wish we had an X…” They have the tools to build it. With things like Kickstarter movement they have the tools to fund it. Can I borrow your line? At dinner, Walter said, you know, Kickstarter is basically, “If you come, we will build it.” So I think that’s really interesting.
But it’s also the ability to say, “I have a great idea. I have the tools to build it and I have the ability to raise money.” You know, I can only imagine what some of the greats of that counterculture, had they had the apparatus to build it, and maybe not as many apparatus to do some of the things Walter was doing, what they would’ve done. And, again, I think my generation and the generation after is less educated but more empowered, and I think, you know—you know, I was just at the first ever transgender hackathon, and it was a group of people that said, “We had no access to any of this stuff. What do we need?” And in a weekend, they built a few of those things. And you’re seeing this in all sorts of micro-communities, and the idea is you really can build these things quickly. So I think that’s the best part of this generation is the ability to say, “This isn’t right” and quickly improve.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, good. I want to get to the audience, whatever you want to throw in there. But I want to seed a couple of things that you said to me on the phone that I don’t want to lose. You said you think the biohackers are kind of the equivalent of the homebrew computer club of today. But you don’t think that this week?
Brand: Well, the homebrew computer club actually is having a reunion tonight, as we speak.
Kirkpatrick: And we appreciate you being here, because you probably would like to be there.
Brand: Biohackers are coming along. But there’s this entity, which is surprisingly unreported, called the International Genetic Engineering Machine group, that meets, that has these jamborees of summer projects of creating new life forms, of microbes that do interesting things. Initially, they did things like they would do the wave, and then they would do things like smell like vanilla when they were growing and then like bananas when they were resting and things like this. Pretty soon they were creating biosensors that can detect pollution in streams, and, oh, by the way, attack it. So there’s now, last I checked, I think over 36 countries and like 200 teams of kids who invent new life forms, come and race them against each other, initially at MIT. It’s now gotten so big that it’s international. But this has been going on for six or seven years now and they’re inventing these things called biobricks, which are little bits of genetic code that will work in E. coli—mostly E. coli, although they’re starting to do vertebrates and you and me are next. And this is going on and it is—they’ve now run through tens of thousands of students, who all know about each other. And it’s going to be one of those things, like anybody who’s been in the Peace Corps is a cohort that just has a different relationship to responsibility and governance and culture and travel and everything else. There is a cohort of these IGM student graduates coming into the world who are just not taking anything about biotechnology for granted, because they know they can create life, and they’ve done it, successfully. How cool is that?
Now, there’s also DIYBio and BioNow and BioCurious and the various biohacker things that are starting to happen, and all of this is trying to do a Tech Place–like generation there. It’s early on. Biotech is moving maybe six times faster than Moore’s law, but it’s really early and we haven’t gotten to what people will think of as the elbow yet. But it’s driven by money of people not wanting to die, and, you know, defying death or defying illness or “I’m going to have more fun in old age [ph—0:34:45]” or whatever the hell it is, and there’s a lot of money in that. So it’s driving the technology, even faster than digital technology has been driven, in terms of the motivation of people who want this stuff to come in their lifetime.
Kirkpatrick: Yes. And of course, we have a whole session on this on Wednesday morning. So we don’t need to completely foreshadow it, but one of the aspects of that that’s interesting—and, going back to the comment you made about, “Oh, we’ll make mistakes” and all that on geoengineering, you know, one of the key points of your “Whole Earth Discipline” book was that really nature is—we don’t really have nature in the same sense anymore. We have a manipulated world, and we’ve had it for many years—as you said, since the Tigris and Euphrates, we’ve been manipulating weather and the natural environment at scale. And, interestingly, when I talked to Walter on the phone, you were making a similar point about—you know, Stewart has talked in the past, I mean he probably would do it now in other ways, but the end of nature at the macro scale, right? But you were sort of talking about the end of nature at a more micro scale, which is related to what Stewart was just saying.
De Brouwer: I think this is—you know, if you think of what is the next counterculture, you know, what is the next insubordination, and I think the next insubordination is the end of nature. And by the end of nature, I mean nature meaning waiting for stuff to happen. We will be—you know, we think we’re so good, the baby boomers and the top engineers, but probably for the next generations we will be like pretty lame, because we waited for stuff to happen. We were good boys and girls, and they will write bits at those neurons and genes, you know, and that will be the end of it, and that will be the real force of engineering. You know, that’s the next insubordination, I think.
Kirkpatrick: You also had a good line, if I can remember it—did I write it down? Because I asked you about something along this—oh, because I was telling you that Stewart had said to me on the phone something he’s not saying tonight, but that the people who are disregarding the biohackers today are making the same mistake that the computer industry of the day made in disregarding the homebrew computer club people. And so I told you that on the phone—I’m really like just seeding the whole thing here—and you said something really good. You said that we talk so much about the global mind, which is sort of the IT industry’s kind of theoretical ultimate idea, and you said we really need to be thinking about the global body. I don’t know what you meant by that, but it was a great line.
Brand: Yes, what do you mean by that?
De Brouwer: Well, because we think of medicine as this average human body, but there are no averages and there is no unitary medicine. There is a protean medicine. We now agree that there are millions of cancers. So it is so versatile that in the end we will turn medicine as sort of quantum mechanics, where uncertainty is built in, you know, and biofeedback is a big force, and even placebo is a big force. And in the end, a lot of it is in the mind also, as—and whenever I say something, you know, Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly were my big—you know, I got everything from these guys so they’ve probably heard it already 20 times. Or I’m rehashing your ideas. But in the end, the personalization of all our medical ranges and through each, who we are and how we will biofeedback, you know, can actually steer our blood pressure, I think that will be the Buckminster Fuller of saying we can do more and more with less and less. You know, we’ve looked in our blood, we’ve looked in our genome, it isn’t there, it’s probably in our mind.
Kirkpatrick: Any thoughts, Ina, before we move to the audience? Because I think this is a pretty interesting conversation.
Who has a comment or a question or, you know, astonished reaction of some sort? Over here?
Brandt: I’m Jordan Brandt from Autodesk. We’re getting stabbed by cacti over here as we’re talking, so I’m taking a lot of risk in asking this. It’s actually a comment. You guys just made me 180 on my 180 for tomorrow. So thank you. But now I don’t know what the hell I’m going to talk about.
Brand: I hear Autodesk is getting into biomaking.
Brandt: Actually, Andrew, would you like to say something about this? We have the world’s expert on it, right here in the crowd.
Hessel: Yes, about two years ago we formally created a group focusing on bio, nano and programmable matter, really domains and scales of matter that we really hadn’t been putting any effort into in trying to consider forward engineering and design. It’s been moving very quickly. That group has grown very fast, and we’ve been supporting a lot of different groups, including the IGEN groups at MIT, which is one of the fastest growing educational communities I’ve ever seen, Stewart. Something like 18,000 people have been through it now in the last decade.
Brand: I read in in Chris Anderson’s Makers book, which is wonderful, that Autodesk really embraced this movement early and solidly. How did that happen?
Brandt: I think it’s a shift that we started seeing coming up organically. Autodesk, for those of you that don’t know, it makes design software. They’ve been around for about 31 years, so they’re kind of the largest software company you’ve never heard of. But in 31 years they had something like 12 million professional engineers and customers that used their tools. In the last three or four years, we’ve got about 130 million new makers joining in with these really cheap app-based design programs. So we’ve just seen really a rushing to—you know, because of the intersection of high performance computing, these cheap apps and these new output devices like 3D printers, so we’re just riding the wave.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, Autodesk is doing extremely impressive things. I mean we’re really happy to have two of its leading thinkers here tonight. So was there a question you were going to get around to there, or was…
Brandt: No. Well, the question is, what should I 180 my 180 on?
Kirkpatrick: Well, you don’t give us much information there. I don’t know.
Okay. Over here.
Keen: My name’s Andrew Keen. Stewart, there’s a lot of vagueness on this panel.
Brand: There’s a lot of what on this panel?
Keen: Vagueness. You’ve spoken about the people and all the rest of it. But the reality of the last 20 years, in terms of this supposed revolution you’ve led and encouraged and all the rest of it—
Brand: It’s true IBM didn’t go away.
Keen: IBM’s irrelevant, Stewart. Or it’s Google or it’s Facebook or it’s Instagram. This revolution that you’ve encouraged and you’ve eulogized is only creating more inequality and more kind of injustice. So you skirted around the issue, Stewart. But what’s the reality, the reality of a world of more inequality, a world where there’s a tiny proportion of very, very rich technologists and everyone else is missing out on this idealized revolution?
Brand: I’ll bet you’ve been saying that for quite a while. And it gets less true every week. I’ve been going to these digital conferences for 35 years now, and, boy, have I seen a lot of things keep coming up. The thing that kept coming up year after year is the digital divide, and all of the sudden the last day there, we had a kind of chanting together, we must solve the digital divide, that getting these wonderful tools that we and wealthy nations get to have and get it to the rest of the world, those poor things, and everybody would go away feeling noble and helpless. And it was such a waste of time. Kevin Kelly pretty much nailed it. What happens is, what the rich people get to do is use the new tools while they’re really expensive and really crappy and they get it through that process, you get down the learning curve, they work pretty well, and by then they’re absolutely grabbed by anybody who can grab them. The most classic example would be cellphones. And cellphones, you know, remember just a couple of years ago at conferences like this, somebody would stand up and say, “You know, half the world has never made a phone call.” And they would all feel bad.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, really wringing their hands—
Brand: Yeah, and wringing their hands about that, “How do we fix that?” At that very moment, as Clay Shirky pointed out, that was not an interesting thing. One, it wasn’t true, that week, anymore. And the other thing was the delta, was the rapid take-up of phoning, phone making, phone connecting and phone call making that was going on, and then suddenly places in India, Africa and Asia have a way better cell signal than we get right here and in many other places in the US. And there’s all sorts of small businesses where they get handsets, they make a tower, they get some more handsets, they make another tower, and it permeates out more than the roads do. Now what the hell happened to the digital divide? It reversed, where innovation started coming back from the far edge of this kind of low-cost usage. So I don’t see that kind of inequality being an issue. I also don’t give a damn that people are becoming billionaires. It’s like I used to do inveigh against the lottery, and then I realized that lottery is about the only little shot of hope that a fair number of people get. They pay this little tax to get, “Maybe a great thing will happen. Maybe I’ll get out of this situation I’m in.” That’s maybe worth spending on. Getting addicted to it obviously is a problem. The issue is not are the top getting super-duper rich. The real important issue is, is the bottom billion getting the hell out of poverty, and going from next to nothing to twice that is so much huger than going from being a one billionaire to a two billionaire. So you look for where’s the incrementally important difference happening, and anything that helps move people out of poverty, which they’re doing by moving to the city, giving up other subsistence, farms and so on, that’s the important event. And the good news is that that’s going on like mad right now.
Kirkpatrick: Well, anyone who was here at the beginning of the day would know that I agree with that.
Brand: Anyway, thank you for the question. It helped get this sort of going. But you have an angle on it?
Fried: No, I mean I think there’s truth in both of those things. I think it is without question that, you know, the benefits of technology in the early stages benefit one group disproportionately, and I think it’s also—you know, I certainly wouldn’t disagree with Stewart that if you look at the impact of technology, it’s having a global impact. You could argue in the early days of technology that it wasn’t trickling down. I think it’s hard to say that technology hasn’t changed lives globally. I think it’s naïve to say we don’t have a choice in where we put our energy. I do think—you know, it is the case we can target more technology towards more things, even at home. I mean even—you know, I think it’s less true globally. I think it’s more true in the US. I think you could argue that in the US, the disproportions haven’t improved. Technology is broadly available. I mean you won’t find a house—10 years ago, 15 years ago, you wouldn’t find a house without a TV, but that didn’t mean we’d reached economic equality in the US. Now you won’t find a house without a cellphone, but that doesn’t mean we’ve solved a lot of institutional big problems. But I also think it’s naïve to say we haven’t had an impact.
And I think also, what Stewart said that’s really interesting is we are seeing some of these technologies come back. It turns out that the soccer ball that generates power and creates a battery that was developed for Africa, you know, benefits all of us that can’t get one day’s charge out of our cellphones, because for all our money, for all our power, for all our wonderfulness, we still can’t figure out how to make a better battery yet. And so, you know, I think we do have a choice where we put our priorities. I think, you know, that there are problems that affect disproportionately poor people that do get ignored, that don’t get solved by giving them technology. That’s why some of the stuff that the Gates Foundation does of redirecting resources towards diseases—you know, the fact of the matter is nothing is going to cure polio trickling down from a society that eradicated polio. The only thing that’s going to cure polio is somebody spending some money on polio. So I would just argue that there’s a lot of truth in what the both said.
Brand: And it’s nice that a tech billionaire is doing that.
De Brouwer: There’s a Swedish quote that says the best way to help the poor is not to become one of them. I think because if you become one of them, then you can certainly not help them, so—
Brand: Well, that was actually part of the hippie impulse was the—you know, it was called voluntary poverty. And it actually made us comfortable probably our old age as less threatening, for many people, because we could get by on not much. We did it for a while.
Kirkpatrick: Well, what Ina was just saying, you know, I can’t help thinking of the great C.K. Prahalad. I mean his whole argument was that the future was increasingly going to be that the innovations that were most impactful in the developed world would be things that emerged from the developing world and where pragmatism and need led to more innovation, and then of course, economies of scale would allow it to be produced so that it would—anything produced in quantity is cheaper to produce. And ultimately, the real beneficiaries would end up being the developed countries, even the—you know—
Brand: Did C.K. give any examples of that?
Kirkpatrick: He gave tons of examples of that. “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” was—which is a great book, by the way. I think he had a lot of examples of that. But, anyway, who has another comment or question?
Brand: What’s interesting is from here these flames look like they’re raising their hands.
Powers: Jeffrey Powers, from Geekazine. I like the idea of biohacking, but is it more of a term to go for a new set of patents, a new set of trademarks, as the PC industry is pretty much saturated with things like that?
Brand: The biohacking I’m aware of in the IBM-type crowd, they’re pre-commercial, in the sense of screwing around, not going toward the IP. A fair amount of biotech is happening in universities, where they’re interested in the IP and in licensing it and so forth. So there’s the usual mix. Typically, I’m most interested in stuff that you might call pre-commercial, where people are just grabbing some new tool and are running to their own personal horizon with it, along with their friends, and just seeing what amazing thing they can do there. And then if it turns out there’s something that is so amazing and wonderful that people want it, they really discover it through the much richer networks now and then they start selling it and people are glad to pay for it, and maybe they talk to a lawyer at some point. But pretty much the stuff I’m interested in is pre-lawyer, and there’s a lot of it.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Can we get the mike up here?
Elron: Thank you. So looking at this bio-revolution that’s coming and looking at the—
Kirkpatrick: Dan Elron of Accenture—
Elron: Oh, sorry, Dan Elron, Accenture. Looking at the bio-revolution that’s coming and looking at the tech revolution that we’re in the middle of, what recommendations would you have to the future Bill Gates, etcetera? What should they do differently, and what should we do differently as a society to maximize the benefits of that tech revolution?
Brand: That is a good question. I tried to revisit it Wednesday morning. Right after Craig Venter created, out of the computer, a genome, which he then put into an organism and flipped it into the organism that the genome represented, there was a White House collection of other young old hands in that area who got together to conjure about if we could “create life”—which is not what Craig did, but he was getting pretty close to it—what are the hazards we have to worry about and should this technology be sequestered and all this kind of stuff. And they basically said it’s too early to worry. I mean ever since the Asilomar meeting about recombinant DNA in 1975, there’s been some very structured and careful worrying, and what they do is they lay out the frame to worry about and then play that against the world and then dial it back as you realize various things are not as hazardous as you worried they might be. This is the way to do precautionary principle is be cautious, look at stuff carefully and then adjust what you do according to what actually turns out to be not as hazardous as you thought. And that’s pretty much what the group that is now called Synthetic Biology at the White House came up with. They said do not try to anticipate profound dangers and legislate accordingly for this technology. They had seen that happen with prominent DNA back in the 1970s. Recombinant DNA was just the beginnings of chain splicing and all of that. And the city council of Cambridge, Massachusetts said, “Well, you’re not going to do any in Cambridge,” and the city council of Berkeley, California, site of the University of Cal, Berkeley, said, “You’re not going to do any in Berkeley,” and there started being these anticipatory shutdowns, based on nothing yet but just random Frankenstein fears. And so what came out of the White House is basically saying, watch how this emerges—they used the term ‘vigilance,’ which I had used in the book and they may have gotten from “Whole Earth Discipline,” a kind of a cautionary vigilance where you watch this stuff and then legislate according to what happens in the world, rather than what your most ignorant Congresspeople can imagine might happen in the world, or what the stupidest troll online imagines might become the problems. That’s not the way to legislate hazard with new technologies.
So I think it’s from both the top and, in a sense, from the bottom. There’s a lot of sanity going on with the emergence of this new technology, except in Europe of course where they’re allergic to anything that has a gene involved. They’ll be sorry.
Stikeleather: Jim Stikeleather, Dell. Several people referenced Kevin Kelly, and going back to his 5000 days of the Internet speech, something that he said really struck me, and it was that the revolution was not the technology, it was the business models. That’s where it all came from. So what do you see as future new unanticipated business models, with what’s going on with the makers and what’s going on in the gene space, that you see?
Brand: Well, medical, you know, human biomedicine is what’s driving new technology so rapidly, and there’s a very well-established set of business models around hospitals and pharmacological companies and so on. I think there are 3D printer-like things that will be coming along. I cannot wait for us to grow meat in vats and to manufacture T-bone steaks. And PETA is behind this and it’s starting to be referred to as cruelty-free meat. Well, I see it as grazing-free meat, because a third of the world’s ice-free land mass is devoted to grazing animals and it should be wild lands and forests, as far as I’m concerned. And that can happen once—
Stikeleather: Not to mention the methane production and all of that that comes from…
Brand: Well, the methane production, yes, out of both ends of the animals, including us. So I think that there’ll be lots of applications. The main thing that we’re discovering that will change, I think, people’s perspective on everything, certainly changing biology, is the realization that microbes rule the world. They rule the atmosphere, they rule much of us—and I’ve heard it many times now, but this was news to me when I heard it ten years ago, that one-tenth of our cells are human and the rest are all these other creatures, and we have, what is it now, 26,000 genes and they have 20 million genes, which they’re passing around among each other all day every day, transgenically. The way microbes relate to each other I think will, once we understand more of the ecology, bucket brigades and all these things they do, quorum sensing, etcetera, will become a new set of biological metaphors for understanding organized behavior. We’re not there yet. The science has yet to be done.
Kirkpatrick: Well, that was a very interesting answer to a question about business models.
Fried: Yeah, I was going to take it in a whole nother direction, which is, you know, I think one of the shifts that’s really interesting that we’re seeing a lot of experimentation, particularly in cities, but I think it does apply to more than cities, is, you know, taking on this question of ownership. And we were talking about it a little at dinner, you know, do we need—what is it we really want? Do we really want to own something or do we want to have access to it for when we want it? And I think this generation is likely going to come up with a different answer than we would if somebody had, you know, done a pop quiz ten years ago and asked us. You know, I remember Steve Jobs standing up and saying people want to own their music, and I think music is actually a perfect example of something that you just want access to. I couldn’t care less whether I own it or not, but I certainly want access to it everywhere. You know, for a long time those were tied. The subscription music was terrible, but it wasn’t the ownership that made it—now people are saying, “I don’t need to own a car. I don’t necessarily need to occupy the house I own and I don’t need to own the house I occupy.” I mean, which of course has always been true on a rental model. I think—
Brand: Well, you expanded a little earlier on Airbnb and it’s like moving into cars and stuff like that. Say more about that.
Fried: So there’s a bunch of different models. You know, basically looking at the fact that a car, you know, we spend a lot of our resources to buy it, then we spend more resources to put it somewhere while we don’t use it. All we really want is it to be there when we need it, and in fact, we buy the car, quite often, that we think we need on our worst day; on our worst day or biggest adventure, we’re going out of the city, so we need to have four-wheel drive. What we really want is access to the right car at the right time, if we could make the business model work. And there’s a million companies, so there’s one—you know, we pay to park at the airport and other people pay to rent a car at the airport, so there’s a company that says, you know, we’ll pay you and—you know, some of these are more challenging, and I believe a lot of these first-generation companies are built on a sense of ‘everyone has good intentions,’ that I don’t think history says is necessarily true. Reputation systems can help and all that—
Brand: Bicycles kind of went through that.
Fried: And they’re back big time, you know. I lived in Amsterdam for a year; they had it. It sort of worked, it sort of didn’t work. They’re back everywhere, and part of that—so I think that on a business model is one of the most transformational things I see. And then I think it is the answer too, that if you own a lot, if we increase wealth, you end up with clutter, as I’m often told by my partner when I have 3000 things running around. And, you know, maybe what we need is access to most of those things.
Kirkpatrick: Yeah. I think we’re probably going to wrap soon. But I want to go back and give Andrew a little credit because we sort of shot him down before, but, you know, there is—there’s one piece of the whole dystopia and critique which is sort of broad at the moment that I think, it’s come up today and I don’t think we should disregard it tonight, the whole issue of jobs. You know, and it came up in some of the discussions we had preparing for this. Walter brought it up, and maybe you should talk about it, Walter, but, you know, it is one thing that, I’ll tell you, I, as I said onstage today, even as a techno-optimistic, cannot help getting more and more concerned about the impact of technological progress on employment for an awful lot of people. And it may be that because of some of the things Ina was just talking about, you know, people actually need less money, and maybe they don’t need jobs in the way they had in the past, and that’s an argument that has been made. And last year we heard Erik Brynjolfsson talk about free goods here at Techonomy. But what do you guys think about this jobs question and how seriously should we be worried about it?
De Brouwer: So what we talked about was I think the—so as we’re all here, we all have a job. That job makes us travel, makes us go to conferences. Every day we’re exposed to new problems because of who we are and that identity. But, you know, very soon, you know, like a billion people are going to lose their jobs, and so they will no longer be exposed to these problems. So when you’re not exposed to the problems, you don’t know the answers, so a part of this world will not understand the world anymore and the other part will understand the world. And, you know, then we come into everyone talks about technological singularity, but perhaps singularity is an economic singularity, where the part of the world that doesn’t have these jobs, are not exposed to the problems, doesn’t know what’s going on, feels the gravity of being pulled by technology on the others and doesn’t even understand it. I think that’s, you know, part of the fact that it changes the identity and they are no longer commercially interesting, it also, you know, kills the soul. And, you know, I—
Fried: I also think they’ll be exposed to the problem of they can’t eat and that creates problems, or they can’t provide housing—but I think it’s really easy to talk about the benefits, and, you know, I don’t think people need a job, but there has to be a means of sustenance. So, you know, if we’re going to decide that only half the people have to work, we’re going to have to have an economic system that works for that, and I don’t think we have one, so I think we better figure out how to have jobs. They don’t have to be the same jobs, but—I’m not worried that people without jobs won’t be facing problems. I’m worried about—I’d be worried about the problems they do face, and I think ultimately you can’t not—we can’t not educate a sector of our population, we can’t not feed a sector, we can’t not employ, I mean for a variety of reasons.
Brand: Remember the leisure crisis? It might be before your time. In the ’60s, groups like this would get together and fret about how there’s going to be too much leisure and people wouldn’t know what to do with it and they should all study humanities and stuff like this so they would be able to entertain themselves with all this leisure that’s going to crush them. And it was, you know, it was totally illusory problem. The opposite occurred, now everybody’s complaining that nobody ever stops. This might be in that category. It is the case that robots are coming for everybody’s jobs. Kevin Kelly makes the case that if a robot can do your job, probably a robot should do your job and you should find a job that a robot can’t do or that you don’t care if a robot can do, that you want to do it your way. Artisanal food is sort of raised this way now, and then there’s the whole, people pay extra for food that is raised with that kind of attention and love and polyculture approach and you get it delivered to your door. This is all real stuff. Food is not necessarily any better than something coming from a farm where there’s one guy on a tractor and he’s reading a magazine because the tractor is taking care of what’s happening in the field. So, yeah, stuff is moving, but it’s patchy, and so there will be places will the robots replace the people doing certain things and lots of other places where that hasn’t happened yet or may not even happen because of some other cultural framework. So the pragmatic thing to ask is, is this useful to worry about?
De Brouwer: That’s a good one.
Kirkpatrick: I would think yes, but you question that.
Brand: Well yes, I do.
Kirkpatrick: You don’t think we should bother worrying about that?
Brand: Well, you know, I’ve just seen too many things like the leisure crisis that we worried about that was just a total waste of time.
Kirkpatrick: Well, I hope you’re right.
De Brouwer: Okay, I’m certainly going to stop worrying about it now.
Kirkpatrick: It’s nice to end on an optimistic note, I’ll say that. I do think we should end because I’ve seen more than one pair of eyes drooping. But I think this was a fun conversation and I hope we can continue—nobody has to go to their rooms now. I think we can continue talking amongst ourselves. But I’m really pleased to have had such an interesting trio of panelists. I think all three of you really are the kind of deep thinkers we need more of, so thank you for being here.