17 December 2005

The Coming eRenaissance

I’m unqualified to tell anybody if this is accurate or not, but it was once explained to me that the Renaissance, you know – that fascinating period of intellectual and technological innovation from roughly 1450 to 1850, was made possible largely by the fact that the economic situation had created a class of people who were free to basically follow their interests and see where they lead. The creation of the middle class and the first hints of the industrial revolution had made several people marginally wealthy so they didn’t have to spend all day, every day making a living. Instead they could think about the scientific mysteries of the day like ‘What is energy?’ or paint portraits of women holding weasels.

Stand by for Renaissance 2.0.

I’ve been reading Wired magazine for the last couple of years (That is a great magazine by the way, if sometimes a little snarky). Over and over the stories revolve around some dot-com millionaire who has decide not to take his or her windfall and move to the Bahamas, but rather take that money and do something they really enjoy or believe in. Some are altruistic in their endeavors, others just quirky and driven to follow an impulse, but the story gets told time after time.

Right now we’re at this place where US technological progress hinges on the production of new technologies and techniques. The solution to any one of an innumerable list of small problems is worth a million dollars. Similarly, as countries like India and China (multiple billions of people!) race toward modern technology there is a gigantic market to facilitate that race. In short, there are lots and lots of opportunities for folks who only need to be moderately clever, or simply lucky, to find themselves suddenly transcending the rat race.

In Wired, just based on the medium, I’m really only reading about those folks who turn their first tech-million into some other tech project – going to the moon, melting bulldozers, turning lead into gold, that kind of thing. But in other publications I see the same kinds of stories, just not so obvious. Folks who start making toys, or writing that book they always dreamed about, or jump starting some kind of ministry.

What’s more, these kinds of projects thrive in a collaborative environment, where the Oregonian who has figured out Tab A can actually find the Scot who built Slot B. The now world of instant communication where distance really only effects shipping costs, plus computer systems that can search enormous amounts of data in moments – this is gonna be huge!

Here are a few of my futurist predictions:
  • Books and paper will NOT go away any time soon. In fact they will thrive. Folks will have more time to read AND to write books. Sure shorter, disjointed writings will move more and more to the web – the new realm for the pamphleteer. But longer works still want and deserve a degree of permanence. But don’t get caught thinking of “books” as paper and leather. Think of a method to store ideas and plot lines. Case in point: the paperless office never happened. Instead, we print more things now then we ever have.
  • The flat world that Friedman talks about will be so natural to adapt to on the street level that barely anybody will notice. Only the snooty pants people who live in 32nd floor apartments will wonder at the newness of it all. The farmer in Bend wont think twice about popping up his laptop in his Chevy and asking a question of his irrigation engineer in Thailand. In fact, the biggest hindrance to this trend will be governmental and corporate opposition. As they seek to maintain control and get their nickel, they’ll screw things up. Case in point: Wi-Max in Philly.
  • The sciences will be re-democratized. Right now, there is such a barrier to being a scientist – education, funding, peer review, et.al. To the great chagrin of the existing establishment, more and more science will simply go around this structure and produce real results without the Ivory Tower’s blessing. That will be a mixed blessing – innovation? Sure. Quality? Think again. We will once again come to ponder the specter of some mad scientist creating a dark star in his garage that winds up swallowing Cheboygan. Case in point: fake stem cell research out of Korea.
  • Cultural spheres will fare the same as the sciences. With huge explosions of music, art, poetry, etc. The bright side is that lots of cool new stuff will be created and lots of people will be able to make a modest living with only a modest audience. The dark side – there will be a raft of absolute crap that needs to be sifted through. That said, this is where feedback tools make the sifting much easier and much harder to be hijacked by economic interests. Case in point: MySpace and other social networks that let widely dispersed networks of people gather to create a market for almost any product or service.
  • Universal education will either change into something we don’t recognize or go away entirely. This will dovetail with the home schooling trend and the availability of computerized learning tools. Homeschoolers didn’t set out to create a social trend, but it’s happening anyway. When I can teach my child up to the high school graduate baseline in a matter of eight years instead of twelve, that’s an edge that is more important than the religious impulse that got homeschooling started. Secular homeschooling is just starting to take off because people perceive it produces better results. What’s more, in a world where fresh thinking is the hottest commodity, kids excel in doing the out-of-box thing and will see that learning geography is a luxury, while understanding HTTP is valuable. It will become a valid (but always risky) career path to look for a problem that needs solving but isn’t getting the attention it needs, and devoting oneself to one to four years of hard work with a fat paycheck at the end. I can learn where Oslo is later. Picture kids dropping out of school to join startups instead of to play basketball. What’s more, there are SO many issues that have a potential million on the back end that being a career inventor is again a real job possibility. So that’s pretty cool. Case in point: huge growth in technical trade schools without concurrent growth in 4-year technical degree fields. Folks just want to learn what they need so they can get to it. I’m one of those folks. I already had my certificate in a technical field when I went to GFU to study history. History is a passion, not a job skill, and I absolutely freaking LOVED college because of it. I couldn’t care less about my grades because my future was not on the hook. I was just following something I dug.    

Isn’t the truism “Do something you love.” always confounded by “What’s for dinner?” The market economy we call the rat race tightens when we’re in that phase of the cycle where the last generation’s innovation is being consolidated and exploited. The Rat Race become the Renaissance when innovation can get out from under the market for a spell and think crazy thoughts. People with passion, and heart, and chutzpa can run around willy-nilly without caring if this thing will make them a dollar...because they already have that portion of their lives settled. It’s just that Mazlow hierarchy pyramid working its magic.

So if you have some burn in your belly. A story that you really WANT to write, a need that only you can address, a splinter in your mind that WILL NOT go away – don’t put your head down and trudge through life wishing things were different. Look around for one of these problems that the world is just waiting to solve and solve it – then sell it. You don’t need to make a million, you only need to make five year’s salary so your next five years are filled with life and passion and the freedom to do what you love. There is the stuff of happiness. There is the life of deep fulfillment.

1 comment:

Both Fex said...

Reminds me of a quote I once read by John Adams:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."