while i was in Berlin i spoke at Deutsche Telekom's Innovation Day. in the exhibitions hall there was a display for an initiative called Palomar5. Palomar5 is group of young people (and it gives me the shivers that I am no longer included in this category) that are interested in innovation and large-scale problem solving using social technology. With the help of DT, Palomar5 put together a "Technology Innovation Camp." The camp brought 30 young-ens under 30 from around the world and placed them into a former beer factory in the heart of industrial Berlin for six weeks. I visited the facility on the recommendation of the folks that had brought me in to speak.
The space was immense. An architect had been hired to loosely partition some of the more cavernous rooms, creating play spaces and work areas. The sleeping quarters consisted of a series of small, free-standing one-bedroom houses that were scattered around the factory floor. it looked like a miniature village. I was told that these cocoons were especially helpful because the participants kept odd hours and would sometimes hibernate in the middle of the day.
An extremely precocious 19 year-old named Max walked me through the labyrinth. The work areas were chaotic - writing on the walls was encouraged, and in one room a series of bean bags faced a home made projection screen where participants had pitched ideas to professionals in a "real" simulation of the reality show "Dragon's Den." Another room was filled with computers and divided up by large white cut-outs in the shape of sails. Max showed me a fort that the participants had built out of bedsheets and chairs. The night before they had been up until 3AM blowing things up in the parking lot. It was all the best things you could wish for in a techno-geek camp.
Max was interested in entrepreneurship. He was building a platform that he hoped would provide a network of resources to first time entrepreneurs - his subgroup of palomar5 participants has set up a site that will be launching soon if you care to follow their progress. As we wandered around Max spoke in a way that complimented the chaos of the space. His ideas were vast, confused, irreverent and terribly exciting. At one point I asked him whether he planned on going to college next year and he said that he wasn't sure. he said he had sat in on a graduate class and felt that he already knew everything that they were saying. He thought that he might just skip college altogether and become an entrepreneur.
My host at Deutsche Telekom had referred to the participants of Palomar5 as "digital natives." It is a terms that is frequently used to describe people that have had access to the fruits of the digital revolution since early childhood. I am not a digital native, I was born on the cusp - and have experienced the bizarre forces of nature that allow teenagers to assemble on a Friday night without the use of a cell phone. "digital natives" is meant to signify that these people are different in some fundamental way. the idea is that access to technology during formative years has messed with the internal wiring, creating metaphors for information and social experiences that someone like me could never understand. My guess is that this is partially true.
But "digital natives" are not always revered in the way that they are at Palomar5. Companies complain that "natives" expect things to be handed to them, that they don't respect authority. Helicopter mothers supposedly show up at interviews with their native children. Words like "spoiled", "entitled" and "arrogant" are thrown around. Even the word "native" has some unintended negative connotations. Groups that are labeled "native" tend to get a raw deal in this world.
And that is how i reacted to Max's attitude toward universities: as a sign of the Spoiled Generation. He said he would rather start a company than go to an university that threw his ideas in wastebasket after a quick review and a grade. I responded that at his age most of his ideas deserved to be thrown in the garbage, and the product of an education is not a specific idea, but rather the whole of the person being educated. it felt harsh when i said it and since then i've been trying to understand what happened during that exchange.
my guess is that Max and I were shouting across some sort of chasm. It is a similar chasm that separates republicans from democrats - where differences in an underlying world view makes it impossible to use our shared language to convey an idea . i think that the chasm i experienced at palomar5 involved two very different ideas about power.
digital natives have grown up in a landscape where access to information and influence has been flattened. they have watched media distribution bottlenecks in the form of networks and studios lose influence to youtube and independent production houses. They have watched companies bow down to viral video critiques, and watched political systems get hacked by social networks. this is a generation that doesn't understand restrictions on access to media if those restrictions are inefficient or obviously detrimental to the system as a whole. this is a generation that has been at war with DRM and copyright right from the start. it is a generation awash with free tutorials and download-able source code.
I can understand why the thought of spending four years at a university could raise a native eyebrow. universities are emblematic of a different, much older understanding of power. they are meant to be an oasis of access to knowledge and influence in contrast to a world where access is withheld. they provide libraries full of information, and allow students to rub elbows with professors who don't return emails. but as access to knowledge and influence flattens, universities seem less like oases and more like training camps.
University students are trained to navigate the power dynamics of the outside world. students are expected to conform to the will of idiosyncratic professors as a sign of their flexibility in the face of power. Students are expected to perform redundant tasks in exams with artificial restrictions on access to information - learning to live with inefficiency rather than to challenge it. and in the most elite universities students are reminded that the bonds that they create with other students will be the basis of an influence grid that will someday replace the current one - something that could be done in any run-of-the-mill social network for quite a bit less money.
as i write this i feel as though it comes across as if i have contempt for these attributes of a college education. maybe i do, but i also consider them to be valid and valuable. i feel like it is a place where we learn that the world is an uneven place and we should hedge our bet by learning to be self reliant. learn to spell just in case the spell-check stops working. learn to use the stacks just in case google goes down for a day or two. learn to appreciate the classics just in case your boss happens to mention one at a cocktail party. learn basic math just in case your accountant is a cheat. learn basic economics in case you want to go into affiliate advertising.
but show me a society that is obsessed with self reliance and i will show you a society in which communities have failed.
forgive this next interlude, it might get mushy and it will be based on the kind of conjecture that you can only get from an internet personality (yes, mom... that is all that i am.) However, i feel like i have to wrestle with some thoughts about where these older ideas of self reliance and power came from.
There has been a lot of talk about the "power law" in the past few years, particularly about the "long tail" and now the "fat belly". But the tail and the belly are just distraction from it's vicious head. The most famous example of a power law distribution is the way that wealth is distributed globally - roughly 20% of the population has 80% of the wealth, leaving 80% of the population with 20% of the wealth. In recent times we have seen this distribution pop up all over the place - in the distribution of natural phenomena like earthquake magnitude or wave height and in all facets of the networked world - traffic distribution by IP, # of friends on facebook: if you start to look it is hard not to find this distribution. Clay Shirky once told me that networks that have scarcity built into them tend toward power law distributions unless work is added to the system. I don't understand the math, but it seems like a force of nature.
If societies tend toward this kind of uneven distribution, monarchies start making sense: they are a rationalization of a naturally occurring phenomena. Someone always ends up with all of the power and we call them kings and queens and rationalize that God must have given them a divine right to that power. The court becomes a birthright and the peasantry becomes a birth curse, but either way monarchies settle into a power distribution that is somewhat stable. Of course there are upheavals, but after a quick shock the system rebounds to a power law distribution. This distribution is seen at all levels of society in a fractal-like pattern. States have governors, towns have mayors and families have elders. Everyone knows their place.
And it was a remarkably successful form of society. It lasted for thousands of years. But as we became enlightened - tasting of the fruit of knowledge, so to speak - we were cast out of the bliss of thinking things were just so. Modern democracies challenged the justification but not the underlying power distribution. First we questioned birth right but kept a class system that more or less justified the status of most of the population, but over time even that started to erode. What we were left with was the uneven landscape without an explanation of why it was just so.
To fill the void we came up with the myth of ultimate ascension - the idea that anyone can become king, and i don't mean president, i mean someone who has amassed enough wealth to act like a king (i call it a myth because that sort of ascension is statistically unlikely). Here is the idea that each man is a universe of possibility, and the basis of self reliance. Without having a specific place in the world dictated to us we try and possess the skills that will allow us to operate anywhere on the curve. And the people in the top 20% justify their position as a better execution of those skills.
Even when the distribution is called unfair it is treated like an inevitability. the criticism is often that the wrong people occupy the wrong slots, rather than a criticism of the slots themselves. maybe it is an inevitability, a force of nature. maybe that is why communism in its pure form has never been able to scale - it requires too much work to push against that spring - and communist governments seem to collapse back into the the same pattern of oligarchy or monarchy after any initial success.
Growing up in this sort of self reliant society I accept that there are certain things that need to be learned, and I buy into the sort of power structure training that happens in universities. I appreciate respect for elders even if it is irrational, it is a small justification of my beliefs about the system as a whole.
But i can also start to see how the digital native generation might collide with some of these beliefs. All of this self reliance must seem a bit redundant and inefficient. i said above that self reliance points to the failure of community. I believe that to a certain degree: it means that we don't trust the network to provide for us so we feel like we have to prepare for being alone. But digital natives trust the network and might not understand why we all need to have the same survival skills. On a societal level it is like asking why we need to learn how to spell when we have spell check. why wouldn't you bring your mother to your first interview? she is more persuasive than you are. she understands meetings. she is like the anagram finder for online scrabble: she is a hack for the game called interview. sure, they may seem entitled when they don't understand the value of investing years in apprentice-like jobs. those jobs are meant to solidify them within a power structure that they don't think is stable. if you look at the skill sets required for upper management without considering power brokerage as one of them - it might seem like anyone could do the job... and maybe that is true.
personally i still believe in the inevitability of an uneven distribution of resources. I look at the events of recent years not as a flattening, but as a shuffling of places on the curve. certain things transition from luxuries to commodities, but new luxuries take their place. to me digital natives are held tightly within the bosom of the old world order - so tightly that they don't see it. They experience the flattening of access and influence in a few domains to be a reflection of the possibilities of a larger shift. I can't see it that way, but perhaps I am wrong.
as i left palomar i was escorted out by another young participant from Mexico. he asked me for some advice. he said that everyone in those cavernous rooms was committed to changing the world. and by the look on his face i believed him. so how does one go about something like this? my first reaction was to play inside the system - find out what the sponsors were after and to deliver exactly that, secure more money for the long term, create a hidden agenda, wash, rinse, repeat. but i could tell that was disappointing to hear.
so as i turned toward the gate I said - maybe you are all revolutionaries without any teeth. maybe the answer is to grow some teeth. i don't know what i meant exactly, but it was an attempt to shout across the chasm.