Finding Our Roots, Again

The early days of the personal computer revolution were littered with countercultural thinkers.

By name, they were Ted Nelson, who penned and hand-published the still-prescient Computer Lib/Dream Machines; Mitch Kapor, who named his startup Lotus and later founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Ray Ozzie and Dan Bricklin, who saw artistry in software and conceived of the spreadsheet; Stewart Brand, who dazzled with his Whole Earth Catalog; Danny Hillis, who dreamed of Thinking Machines; perhaps Richard Stallman, who grasped the perils of intellectual property long before others; and even Steve Jobs, who drew inspiration from Buddhist philosophy and calligraphy.

These bohemians shared an excitement that software and inexpensive computer hardware could liberate the masses — that it could free the oppressed from tyranny, provide education and opportunity for the underprivileged, and connect disparate peoples as never before.

Fast forward to today. The industry grew up, and so did its bohemians. Through their work, many became luminaries and titans of industry. They crafted a new, nearly trillion dollar market sector. Along the way, a new generation — mine — arrived, born at a lucky time when software was young but some trails had been blazed. When we left college, money grew on trees. In early 2000, we started dot com after countless dot com. The bubble burst; we forgot the lessons; we created a new bubble with Web 2.0. Things are even harder now, but at least there’s iFart.

Have we forgotten our roots? This thing isn’t about get-rich-quick; it isn’t even about get-rich-slowly.1 It’s about empowering people and improving their lives. It’s okay, of course, to do this in a small incremental fashion. But our progenitors in this industry weren’t interested in incrementalism. They saw the potential for a radical break from the past. In many ways, it doesn’t seem that their original vision has been met. Perhaps most sadly, some of the best of them ended up hawking beautiful but ultimately unimportant gadgets — selling sugar water when they wanted to make a dent in the universe.

This is why I’ve been excited to learn, lately, of a handful of startups in Seattle whose goal appears to be “improve people’s lives.” Some even have unusual corporate structures that combine the advantages of for-profit and non-profit organizations under one umbrella. One of my clients, Front Seat, has the stated goal of building Civic Software: software that enables or enhances aspects of neighborly life. Startups like Front Seat are not strictly green, but they’re qualitatively similar. They have an abiding belief, as did many of the industry’s original bohemians, that many of the problems we think of as social are in fact amenable to software solutions. With Walk Score, we learned that you don’t have to be an urban planner to have a positive impact on urban planning. Imagine what change might be unleashed if the hordes of “crap app” developers saw their industry and their world in this light.

[1] I do not have a problem with getting rich quick. I do, however, worry when vast numbers of people devote their time to getting rich quick who could otherwise have solved pressing problems and engendered positive long-term change. We’ve had gold rushes before, of course, and we’ll have them again. But, on average, the people who benefit most from a gold rush are the merchants who sell shovels.