At Aaron’s NYC memorial service, Freedom to Connect’s David Isenberg said something that won’t get out of my mind:
I’m afraid that Aaron’s legacy is going to be dumbed down to ‘hacker,’ ‘copyfighter,’ the way the media dumbed down the SOPA fight to Google versus the telephone companies. So let’s not forget that Aaron fought the bigger fights: the fight for access, the fight for justice, the fight for democracy, the fight for us, for this community, and for the greater community that is all humankind.
I also keep thinking about a point Aaron’s father made during his eulogy for his son in Chicago, and that Thoughtworks’ Roy Singham reprised in New York. Over and over again, we’ve seen technology companies, whether startups or giants, push the boundaries of the law for their own gain. We celebrate it. We call it “disruption.” The existing commercial powers largely understand its motivations and can deal with it using tools commercial powers understand: civil lawsuits, ad campaigns, market pressure, private agreements, buyouts, and payoffs.
“AARON’S LEGACY IS GOING TO BE DUMBED DOWN.”
Aaron didn’t play that game. After he sold Reddit, he couldn’t be bought. In fact, he was spending his own money, and his valuable time, on campaigns for the public good, and helping others to do the same. He was a realist about the government, media companies, and Silicon Valley. His experience with all of them made him grow up too soon. But he also never stopped being that not-even-teenager who believed in the utopian possibilities latent in the World Wide Web. He never stopped believing in the power of small groups of people who were willing to devote their attention to small problems and nagging details in order to create the greatest good for the greatest number. Aaron played in that space without resolving its tensions. It’s that collapsing telescope between the many and the few, the rational and the altruistic, the minute and the world-historical, the irreducibility of life as it is lived and the universality of the ideals that life should serve.
“What do you believe in?”
I’m also still grappling with the discomfort of Taren’s question. “If you’re in the tech sector, why are you there? What do you believe in? If you believe that technology is making the world a better place why do you believe that? Do you really understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with?” Unexpectedly, it resonates with something Google’s Larry Page said recently:
If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. But it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing? That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change. So a big part of my job is to get people focused on things that are not just incremental.
Our interest in technology is in the business of technology, and the competition between technology companies and their products. But our belief in technology is the belief in non-incremental change. Not in emergent form factors or paradigm shifts in venture funding, but change in our culture, our politics, our laws, our experiences, and ourselves.
We tend to rewrite the histories of technological innovation, making myths about a guy who had a great idea that changed the world. In reality, though, innovation isn’t the goal; it’s everything that gets you there. It’s bad financial decisions and blueprints for machines that weren’t built until decades later. It’s the important leaps forward that synthesize lots of ideas, and it’s the belly-up failures that teach us what not to do.
When we ignore how innovation actually works, we make it hard to see what’s happening right in front of us today. If you don’t know that the incandescent light was a failure before it was a success, it’s easy to write off some modern energy innovations — like solar panels — because they haven’t hit the big time fast enough.
Worse, the fairy-tale view of history implies that innovation has an end. It doesn’t. What we want and what we need keeps changing. The incandescent light was a 19th-century failure and a 20th- century success. Now it’s a failure again, edged out by new technologies, like LEDs, that were, themselves, failures for many years.
That’s what this issue is about: all the little failures, trivialities and not-quite-solved mysteries that make the successes possible. This is what innovation looks like. It’s messy, and it’s awesome.