Innovate this


Ideas fly at us from every corner of the internet but, despite the quantity, the good still outweighs the bad, writes RICHARD GILLIS

GROWING UP in the 1970s, new ideas penetrated my life at a rate of around one every three or four years. Stagflation; go to work on an egg; a coin can be cleaned by dropping it in Coca Cola; and numbers inputted into a pocket calculator can be made to spell “Shell” and “Esso” when held upside down. That was the sum of my exposure to progressive thinking during the period 1974 to 1978.

Cleverness was a marginal activity denoted on film and TV by the wearing of glasses and/or a lab coat. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the classic inventor-as-happy-hero movie), Caractacus Potts was an endearing dreamer living in rural poverty, albeit one who managed to pay the mortgage on a shabby chic windmill on the South Downs and run a vintage flying car. He laughed and danced and loved his kids, safe in the knowledge that to have a big new idea was to own it.

Today, ideas are a commodity item, flying at us from every corner of the internet and the book publishing industry. Potts’ happiness was borne of ignorance. If he were around now he’d be living a half life of anxiety and self doubt, every germ of a new thought undermined by Google with its ability to puncture our enthusiasm by telling us that someone somewhere has got there before you.

Why bother acting upon anything because the same someone somewhere would have tried and, logic suggests, must have failed because I would have heard of it otherwise. Then it’s on to: my ideas are rubbish, I don’t know why I even bother thinking about anything, I’ll just sit and surf Twitter until the next crisis (deadline) kick-starts me into action. If I’m lucky my life will be a never-ending series of crises allowing me to avoid confronting this futility and disappointment. From here it is a short jump to the Google-makes-us-stupid side of the great internet divide, which paints the digital revolution as one enormous downer.

What stops me getting this far is – a non-profit website devoted to “ideas worth spreading” – where on any given day it is possible to click on and be genuinely moved by an idea.

“Dad, my legs are tingling” was what a young Californian graffiti artist called Tony Quan (street name Tempt One), said when he returned from a run. It was the beginning of a nightmare, which culminated in him being paralysed from head to toe by the nerve disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The condition was similar to that portrayed in the book and then film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Quan was forced to communicate by blinking, due in part to insurance companies’ cold-hearted refusal to fund voice technology. Entrepreneur Mick Ebeling ran a graphic design company and was a fan of Quan’s work. He went to see him in hospital and promised to try and help. With no prior experience or know-how in the field of ocular technology, he put together a team of collaborators who built the open-source EyeWriter invention from cheap sunglasses and stuff bought from Home Depot. The EyeWriter gave the artist, and anyone else facing the same hellish condition, the means to communicate in a visual medium. Ebeling’s decision to share his group’s findings for free over the web meant he didn’t make any money from the project, but he made it possible for an artist to make art again. Tempt One used the device to send Ebeling an extraordinarily powerful e-mail that read: “That was the first time I’ve drawn anything for seven years. I feel like I had been held underwater, and someone finally reached down and pulled my head up so I could breathe.”

Unsurprisingly, Time magazine made it one of the top 50 inventions of 2010 and Ebeling is garnering all manner of praise from the media. He founded the Not Impossible Foundation and for all I know, the fame that his talk generated has enhanced his earning ability. If so, good on him.

When the Google-makes-us-stupid argument gets trotted out, and I do it myself quite often, it’s usually directed at our inability to control what the internet throws at us, railing against its power to distract us, to the obvious detriment of productivity and mental health.

But the flaw in the tech-pessimist’s argument is the assumption that the negative outweighs the good stuff, that there is somehow an acceptable ratio of wonder to crap.

To see how misguided this view is, all we need to do is click on on any given day and be inspired by “ideas worth sharing”.

In the words of Mick Ebeling: “If you see something that’s not possible, make it possible.” Caractacus Potts couldn’t have put it better.