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First world pains

Blake J. Graham | Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In 2009, comedian, and arguably philosopher, Louis CK went on Conan O’Brien’s show to deliver one of his most biting and accurate bits: “Now, we live in an amazing, amazing world, and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care because – this is what people are like now, they got their phone, they’re like, “[pretends to type on smartphone] Ugh! It won’t…” – Give it a second! It’s going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space? It’s the speed of light!” His rousing conclusion: Everything is amazing right now, and nobody is happy.

Economic growth and the quality of life has jumped during the course of three industrial revolutions in the past 200 years. The development of steam power in the 18th century gave society railroads and other forms of developed transportation. From 1870-1910 the world experienced ludicrous advancement through electricity, automobiles, radio, sanitation and flight, all points of which were iterated and improved for the next 50 years. Finally in the 1960s the underlying pieces of electrical computation and the internet formed, pushing us into the byte-sized world we live in today. It is this third revolution that is most curious as it represents a shift from development of “stuff” to development of “bits,” which leaves us without physical entities to gauge our progress against. It goes, almost without saying, to witness the turn of one of these revolutions is akin to witnessing magic.

But the magic at this point is almost entirely gone. We, the people, ignorantly coexist with the byproducts of each revolution without an understanding of what made each valuable and how that value was made, i.e. we saw the magic, now we’re bored, and all we want is more magic.

The trouble is magical invention is getting more difficult to find.

Technologically, we’ve picked off most of the low-hanging fruit. The next tier of scientific and economic advancements is riskier, more financially demanding and most likely to fail. Worst of all, some are caught up in bureaucratic purgatory where they are likely to die out. (Flying cars, super-sonic commercial flight, clean nuclear power and human inter-planetary exploration all come to mind when thinking of technically possible, but politically squashed advancements.)

So what are we left with? Phones, apps and social networks mostly.

At least that’s where investors’ money is. And the money is there because there too lies our interests. This view of the modern technologist grumbling about poor reception, slow Wi-Fi speeds, delayed flights, the hardships of texting, too many emails, not enough followers, etc. (ad infinitum,) is an infectious one. One that had me in its thrall until I learned about a conference held in Portland this past weekend.

On May 22, Andy Baio, one of the original builders of Kickstarter, launched a campaign on the popular crowd-funding site for a weekend conference celebrating “disruptive creativity” in Portland, Ore. called XOXO. In 50 hours, they sold out of conference tickets and reached enough funding for the project to go ahead. On September 13, 400 people congregated at an arts center to get the love-fest underway. Their creed seemingly closer to: “Everything is amazing, and so are you and you and you and you and you…”

During the four-day conference people like Dan Harmon (Community), Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt (Studio Neat), Adam Savage (Mythbusters), Jamie Wilkinson (VHX.tv), Chad Dickerson (Etsy), Yancey Strickler (Kickstarter), Christopher Poole (4chan, Canvas), Bre Pettis (MakerBot), and many other names you likely wouldn’t recognize, spoke about how their work is opening new a new economic sector focused on creativity and craftsmanship.

Harmon urged attendees to seek creativity above all else (something for which his former show Community was known.) Pettis’s company MakerBot makes 3D printers for the consumer market, a technology representing a precursor to a not-too-distant future where we can manufacture completely customized goods from the comfort of our homes.

Poole has run the notorious 4chan for 10 years, which, despite its extensive influence and millions of visitors, hemorrhages cash. Poole doesn’t seem to mind though. The community is self-forming, highly adaptive and more authentic than Facebook. VHX.tv, Etsy and Kickstarter all give a direct connection between creators and community allowing for a quasi-meritocracy of creativity to form.

One must remain skeptical when approaching this new economy and its significance. Its strongest point lies in its inherent optimism found in the perspectives of those behind it – it’s powerful because it’s incredibly naïve. They are hopeful because they value what’s connected, not what does the connecting. Behind the Internet and the world of bits there are human beings. And it is human beings who can inspire the magic to bring about new revolutions.

 Blake J. Graham is a sophomore. He can be reached on Twitter @BlakeGraham or at bgraham2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.