Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a diverse group of volunteers, my friend Tom Loveland (the Google Czar), and other city officials to organize a response to Google’s Request for Information regarding a potential investment of high-speed 1Gbps fiber-to-the-home Internet infrastructure.
Along the way, something remarkable happened.
We laid out a case for Baltimore, and it’s compelling. While other cities have been pulling stunts to try to get Google’s attention, we’ve been assembling a data and fact-driven case for why Baltimore in 2010 is uniquely suited to innovate with the addition of high-speed fiber infrastructure. Google’s corporate culture is famously and relentlessly data-driven. We’ve answered the questions completely, and have highlighted Baltimore’s unique strategic qualifications. We didn’t just stress “how badly we want this,” we built a concise, logical, and detailed case for why Google should want us.
While it’s probably been obvious that we have been working hard and generating press, the public is not aware of our overall strategy, and that’s partly because we have not been able to talk about all of it. Here are some of the reasons why Baltimore can and very likely will win this trial.
Baltimore is unique in that it owns and operates its own expansive conduit system; most cities do not, and this means that Baltimore can deploy a new network faster and less expensively than other cities can.
Baltimore is home to the only philanthropic field office of Open Society Institute, and founder George Soros (the world-famous financier) has pledged to support a Google investment in Baltimore with programs to help alleviate the digital divide. He has urged Google to select Baltimore as the site of this trial, citing the same reasons that Soros selected Baltimore for his philanthropic efforts.
We’re also working with Bob Kahn, co-inventor of TCP/IP to talk about new ways to archive and share municipal data. Mr. Kahn’s counterpart is the other “father of the Internet,” Vint Cerf, who is now a senior executive at Google. And we believe that Cerf will be helping to review these submissions.
We worked with the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, the entity responsible for marketing Baltimore to the business world at large, to shape our messaging and ensure that we had factual economic data. The Greater Baltimore Committee collaborated to align its business members with the effort, securing letters and videos of endorsement from dozens of key large employers.
Last week, the FCC released its National Broadband Plan and one of its authors is a Baltimore City resident. We sought his counsel and advice.
We aligned support of our corporate community, including Under Armour, T. Rowe Price, and dozens of other companies. We received the enthusiastic support of Johns Hopkins University, The University of Maryland System, Loyola University, and a long list of other schools. Gilman School suggested that it could share its K-12 curriculum with the world with the addition of gigabit broadband.
The Space Telescope Institute produced a stunning, compelling video with astronaut John Grunsfeld.
We’re highlighting our burgeoning music and film scenes. In 2008 Baltimore was voted Best Music Scene by Rolling Stone, and the MICA-produced documentary “Music for Prudence” was just awarded an Oscar.
Urban development author James Howard Kunstleraddressed the Downtown Partnership just yesterday, making the case that Baltimore is poised for a population explosion as we enter into an era of urban “redensification.” I share that vision and believe that high speed infrastructure is one of the most important urban design investments we can make today.
In this process, we have articulated a powerful vision for the future of Baltimore, and that vision isn’t going away. We’ve identified our key strategic strengths, and they are the foundations for our shared future. We can’t control whether Google will choose to make an investment here. But that’s not what is most important: we’ve built a case for why we should be investing in ourselves. And that’s a message that resonates with everyone from carriers and broadband providers to prospective residents and businesses.
We have several “aces in the hole,” and our prospects are beyond strong: we’re feeling lucky, as they like to say at Google. But frankly, if Google chooses not to invest here at this time, we should seriously consider making this investment ourselves — the returns would be immense.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently outlined a case arguing that America needs to address its ongoing “innovation deficit” and spur entrepreneurship and creativity in meaningful new ways.
How did we get here? Why is it that America has an innovation deficit? It’s simple: we have lulled ourselves into complacency. America is bored because we have made ourselves boring.
What do we mean when we talk about innovation and creativity? Really what we’re talking about is what psychologists call self-actualization. Put simply, it’s nothing more than realizing all of your unique capacities and putting them to good use. Self-actualization occurs best when it’s in the company of others who are doing the same. Companies that achieve remarkable results are typically loaded with people who are either self-actualizing or on a pathway towards it.
Abraham Maslow described this pathway as the “hierarchy of needs” to highlight the fact that people cannot become fully self-actualized if they are concerned with other more basic needs like food and security.
Like the USDA food pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy identifies some important elements, but the idea that there is a strictly linear progression towards self-actualization, or that it is inclined to occur naturally, is probably wrong. Looking at the world around us, it’s easy to see examples of people whose lives who have petered out somewhere in the middle of his pyramid, even though their baser needs have been met.
I believe this is because we have designed 21st century America in such a way that we short-circuit the process of self-actualization in a number of important ways.
Problem 1: Suburbs
Self-actualization occurs best when people are able to connect face-to-face to discuss real-world ideas, try things out, and play. This means intellectual conversation with a diverse range of people, including a broad range of views. It means exposure to the arts, to music, and a shared desire to solve meaningful problems.
Suburbs short-circuit these important pathways for self-actualization in these important ways:
Slowing movement: people are dispersed – gathering requires use of cars
Lack of diversity: suburbs tend towards less diversity of views, not more
Diverts self-actualizing motivation into materialistic and trivial pursuits
The first two points are obvious enough, but let’s spend a moment on the last one.
Suburbs divert self-actualization into pursuits like neighborhood-hopping and home improvement. It’s not surprising that we just suffered the effects of a housing bubble. With millions of peoples’ self-actualizing efforts poured into drywall and granite countertops, there was simply a limit to how much housing and home-flipping we can endure. It doesn’t do anything. Working on housing is first-order toiling, not long-term advancement.
Is it surprising that the icons of the housing bubble years were “Home Improvement,” “Home Depot,” and the SUV? The SUV was literally a vehicle for improperly diverted self-actualization: if I have a vehicle that lets me improve my basement and my backyard, I can become the person I want to be.
Problem 2: Artificial Scarcity of Opportunity
Suburbs have had other unfortunate side-effects: we have allowed corporations to define the concept of work. By dispersing into our insulated suburban bubbles, we have largely shut down the innovative engines of entrepreneurship that used to define America. Where we might fifty years ago have been a nation of small businesses and independent enterprises, we are more and more becoming reliant on corporations to tell us what a “job” is and what it is not.
To the extent that we are not spending time together coming up with new important ideas, we are shutting down opportunities for ourselves. And corporations are happy to reinforce and capitalize on this trend. Opportunity is unlimited for people who are legitimately on a pathway towards self-actualization. We choose not to see it because we think of “jobs” as something that can only be provided by “companies,” and not created from scratch by collaboration.
Problem 3: Reality Television
Reality television is an ersatz reality to replace our own. It steps in where we’ve failed at self-actualization. It is both a symptom and a cause of our failure. As a symptom, it shows that we have so much time on our hands that we can spend it worrying about somebody else’s ridiculous “reality.” As a cause, this obsession can only be serviced at the expense of our own shared reality.
Problem 4: Car Culture
As a society, we spend way too much time in cars. Some of this is due to the issues I already raised about suburban design. But besides that, we spend a ridiculous amount of time stuck in traffic, waiting at red lights, and trekking around our metropolises.
Cars are fundamentally isolating. Time spent in a car is time you can’t spend doing something else. Sure, they can be useful, and I’m not anti-car, I’m just anti-stupid. If we as a society are burning many millions of hours each week in our cars stuck in traffic and covering unnecessary miles, it’s hard to see how that’s helping us become self-actualized (unless it’s in the backseat) and become more innovative. It’s a tax on our time.
Some have also suggested that one reason we have so many prohibitions on what we can do while driving is because we really just don’t like driving that much. Maybe the problem with “texting while driving” is that we are driving, not that we are texting. Maybe communication is more important societally than piloting an autonomous 3,000 pound chunk of metal and plastic?
A Solution: Well-Designed Cities
We’ve had the solution under our noses all along, but we’ve chosen to let our cities languish. Historical facts about America have led our cities to evolve in particular ways that differentiate them from some of our peers in Europe in Asia. But there is hope, and we must recognize the assets at hand in our cities.
Cities offer higher density populations which lead in turn to innovation and a flourishing of the arts. They lead to efficiency of movement and face-to-face communication, which is absolutely essential for intellectual self-actualization and entrepreneurship. Well designed public places let people interact and share, and also provide a platform for festivals, celebrations, and entrepreneurship. There are simply too many positive assets to ignore.
Arguments that American cities are unlivable today are tautological and self-reinforcing. The very problems that are most often cited (crime and education) are the same problems that would most benefit from entrepreneurship and real long-term economic development activity.
The root cause for the abandonment of our cities is race. In the case of Baltimore, WASPs left when Jews became concentrated in particular areas. Jews left when blacks became concentrated in particular areas. And “blockbusters” capitalized on the fear by benefiting on both ends of these transactions. In 50 years, Baltimore (and many American cities) changed dramatically.
Young adults today simply do not remember the waves of fear that sparked this initial migration. It may be a stretch to say that we are entering into a “color blind age,” but we do live in an era where we elected the first black president. I believe we are at the very least entering an age where people are willing to consider the American city with fresh eyes.
We are at a turning point, on the cusp of a moment when people will start looking at our cities entrepreneurially, for the assets they possess rather than the history that has defeated them. We are at a point where we can forget the divisive memories of the mid-twentieth century and forge a future in our cities that is based on shared values of self-reliance, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Designing Our Future
The design constraints we have proposed for the last 50 years — abandoning our cities, relying on cars, building suburbs and big box stores — have led to the America we see today. And I ask simply, “Do you like what you see?”
We’ve let the culture wars frame these difficult design problems for too long, and it’s time now to put them behind us and start to ask questions in fresh terms. It’s clear now the answer likely doesn’t involve old-school silver-bullets like “Public Transportation,” because simply overlaying transport onto a broken suburban design doesn’t fix anything. Building workable cities and investing in long term transportation initiatives that help reinforce a strong urban design is much more sensible.
And make no mistake: self-actualization is an intellectual pursuit, and the kinds of cities that promote real self-actualization, innovation, and entrepreneurship must become hotbeds of intellectual dialog. Truth and acceptance of facts is an underlying requirement for self-actualization, and we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking that a society built on suburban corporate car-culture makes economic sense.
To continue to do so is to prolong and widen America’s innovation deficit.
In 1983 at age 12, I became drawn to the design and tech culture of San Francisco. By that time I was already deeply involved in computers and the other tech of the day, and had been reading every issue of BYTE Magazine cover-to-cover when it arrived in our mailbox after school.
BYTE was produced in New Hampshire and had a scholarly tone; still, the emerging world of computing was breathlessly covered, and offered a sense of endless possibility. But it was Antic magazine (a specialty computing magazine for Atari computers), specifically the December 1983 “Buyer’s Guide” issue that really caught my eye.
The design was colorful and imaginative, with beautiful typography, and the magazine was full of amazing ideas and products which I was sure would launch me on my way to unlimited exploration. I devoured the magazine cover to cover, but I never realized just how much I was soaking up its design ethos. Colorful, playful, and bold, this was not the wry, academic BYTE. It was combining the substance of tech with the emerging design scene in San Francisco, and it resonated with me profoundly.
In 1985, I got a job at a local computer store doing what I loved: selling computers and software and, yes, copies of Antic magazine. In 1986, I started my own computer and software sales company, Toad Computers. In 1989, months after graduating from high school, I had the chance to visit Antic Magazine — this time as an advertiser.
This was my first trip to San Francisco and I visited Antic at their loft office, located at 544 Second Street, right in the heart of the city’s SOMA district. But this was SOMA before it was the SOMA we know now as the home of so many startup tech companies. Beat up and edgy, the open-air second floor office had high-beamed ceilings and gave a sense of history and limitless potential. I was smitten with the city and with valley tech culture – I also visited Atari’s headquarters in Sunnyvale that trip – and absorbed all that I saw.
Later in 1993, I was twenty-one and searching for new things to explore. Toad Computers was doing well but I knew that it would have to change and grow to survive. Atari was having tough times. Antic magazine had folded. To advertise effectively we were sending out massive catalog mailings, featuring 56 page catalogs that I personally designed – very much in the visual style of Antic magazine.
Someone had told me about a new magazine called Wired. I picked up a copy and was immediately struck with its sense of visual design and its aura of infinite possibility through the combination of design and tech. Again, I ingested every word, photo, and illustration in each issue. In early 1994, I noticed an ad that indicated that Wired – this tiny publishing startup – was looking for a circulation manager. I was entranced at the possibility. With my background in direct marketing and managing big catalog mailing lists, I thought this might be an opportunity for me.
In February 1994, I booked a trip to San Francisco to talk to my kindred spirits at Wired about the possibility of working there. I also became entranced with the Internet and its possibilities at this time, and for several days before my trip to San Francisco, I worked feverishly to write an article for Wired about how the Internet – when it became fully developed and evolved – could become a kind of real-time Jungian web of knowledge that acted like a global brain cheap kamagra oral jelly uk. I theorized that the Internet could become a kind of collective consciousness that enabled humanity’s genius to be available to everyone all the time. I predicted online banking, shopping, and video chat and made illustrations to show how these things would work.
Me, with long hair, at Wired HQ in February 1994
Of course, the simple things were not hard to predict at that time, though they were still a few years off. But my central thesis about Jungian synchronicity was just too wacko to print in 1994. And to be fair, I had cobbled the article together in just a couple of days, had worked in ample quotes from Marshall McLuhan and Carl Jung, and had interviewed no one. My thesis may have been strong, but the piece would have benefited from some interviews and editing. But hey, I was inspired and twenty-two.
When I went to Wired’s offices, I was stunned to learn that they were located in the same office that Antic had occupied! The same open air loft office at 544 Second Street. I met with some folks from Wired’s barebones staff. I commented on my perceived sense of Jungian synchronicity — about Antic and Wired sharing the same office space. We talked about job possibilities. I submitted my article.
I didn’t get a job, and they didn’t print my article. To be fair, I wasn’t really ready to move to San Francisco, and I am sure they sensed that. I also wasn’t sure what I wanted. I just knew that I was drawn to this hopeful admixture of design and tech that seemed to emanate, radio-like, from 544 Second St.
In March 2007, two weeks after I had built Twittervision and a week after SXSW launched Twitter onto the early adopter stage, I thought it would be fun to stop by Twitter HQ in San Francisco. I met Biz and Jack and Ev, and was once again amazed to see that something I had been drawn to had come from SOMA; just a few blocks from 544 Second St. And ironically, it is now Twitter and the “Real Time Web” that is beginning to enable the kind of global consciousness that I had predicted in 1994.
This past Thursday at TEDxMidAtlantic (of which I was the lead organizer and curator) in Baltimore, I was struck by the beautiful design of our stage set. (Thanks to Paul Wolman at Feats, Inc. for bringing it together for us!) A simple combination of bookshelves, cut lettering, books, a few objects and blue wash backlighting had combined to produce a gorgeous backdrop for the extraordinary ideas that our speakers would soon be sharing. And I felt at home. I could not go to 544 Second Street and SOMA. Instead, it was my mission to bring it here.
One of the disturbing things we notice as children is that paper money has no inherent value. Why is it that green pieces of paper are accepted in exchange for all manner of goods and services? Because we have all agreed that it should be so.
Mostly, it is because the various sovereign governments whose soil we inhabit have stated that they will accept payment of tax only in these currencies. So we had best have some of it. This demand creates motivation for all of us to work to get at least a minimum amount of it, and many of us would like to have more than a little.
So, we accept this “green lie” as a fact of life. Money makes the world go around, and we’re all playing this game under penalty of deprivation, or incarceration at the worst case.
Just like Neo, we are called to “wake up” and recognize the nature of this system. Socialist-capitalist world governments are a reality that we impose on ourselves; if we can look up and see beyond it, a whole new world opens up.
Currency Is Different from “Money”
Currency, the worthless bits of paper and metal we trade for handy things like food, beer, and fuel works pretty well and we can rest reasonably sure in our ability to use it to survive.
But what about your 401(k)? It’s an illusion. The financial system is engineered to compel you to shuffle the majority of your wealth into ledger accounts that exist only in your mind. And these “account balances” cause you to make all kinds of decisions — whether to eat out tonight, whether to buy a car or a house, whether to overthrow the government — in particular ways. Your behavior is, in a very real way, controlled by how much “money wealth” you perceive you have.
Glitches In The Matrix
When global financial bubbles jitter as they have done in the last 18 months, home values and 401(k) balances can be badly hurt. These downturns in perceived fortune, in a very real way, cause people to modify their behavior. Maybe you won’t eat out, maybe you won’t take that trip, maybe you won’t start a business. Why do you change your behavior when none of this is real?
Historically, governments are overthrown when unemployment reaches a sustained 15-20%. Current Keynesian fiscal policy adopted by the Fed is aimed at having a variety of control mechanisms to stimulate the economy (lower interest rates; bank lending; TARP mechanisms) when unemployment gets out of control.
But, as we have seen, these market interventions usually lead to unintended consequences. It’s been widely stated that the bank and insurance bailouts were “gifts” to firms like Goldman Sachs who disproportionately benefited from “loopholes” in the regulatory climate. You and your children will certainly pay for these mistakes in the form of devalued currency and sustained taxation.
My point here is to emphasize that monetary policy is an instrument of the state which is used to keep the populace in-line. The debates between the left and right over tax policy are pointless when fiat money allows the Federal Reserve to tweak the knobs of reality at will. And as long as you are motivated by money, you are under the control of this system — and the debates of left and right are just distractions to keep the masses busy. Bush? Obama? Who cares. It probably doesn’t matter to your bottom line. If it doesn’t matter to your personal security, why worry about it?
Finding Inherent Value
Do you ever wish you had a real skill? I don’t mean manipulating ideas or paper, but something tangible? Doctors can trade their services for food. Builders could trade their services for future return of garden produce.
What if your 401(k) was simply gone tomorrow? I don’t mean badly eroded, but gone. What would your future look like? What would be left for you if the monetary system — and all of our current economic system — went bust? What would you have left?
I’d argue you have more than you might imagine. You have family, friends, some basic skills, and an ability to trade effort for necessities. Because everyone would be in the same boat, this would be easier than you might imagine (though it would certainly be chaos).
Current social network tools allow you to start building an economy in the form of interpersonal relationships; by sorting people by shared interests and shared inherent motivations, these tools allow people who find meaning in the same things to find each other. And meaning is at the heart of interpersonal exchange.
Do Important Things
If you endeavor to do things that matter — things that help others, things that change the world, things that have meaning — you will accrue amazing awards in interpersonal relationships. People respect leaders. People respect those who make sacrifices for others. If you’re only in it for yourself and your ability to extract imaginary cash from the system, where will you be when the system fails?
“The System’s Gonna Fail”
In the 1972 film Deliverance, Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) makes a case that “the system’s gonna fail.” Burt Reynolds: “Machines are gonna fail, and the system’s gonna fail… then…” Jon Voight: “And then what.” Reynolds: “Then, survival — who has the ability to survive. That’s the game… survival.” Voight: “And you can’t wait for it to happen, can ya? You can’t wait for it… Well, the system’s done all right by me.” Reynolds: “Oh, yeah… You got a nice job, got a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.” Voight: “You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.”
He may be slightly exaggerating the situation, but when you read books like Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Charles Mackay, 1842 – yes, 1842!) you start to realize that the financial system we have now is only different from those in the past in that we don’t yet know how this one will fail.
That’s right: we just don’t know how this ends, but it will most assuredly end.
Cash as a Symptom of Good Work
If you spend your days creating real change, the distribution platform for your ideas and your work is larger and less expensive than ever before. Do something original and the entire world is your audience. Do something great and the world will want to reward you.
You can accrue massive “whuffie” in interpersonal relationships, but you’ll also very likely accrue a lot of cash if you do work that is both original and inherently valuable.
And since there’s no way of knowing when the system’s gonna fail, it’s best to simply do good work and build strong relationships. Then you’re covered no matter what happens.
You can only master the matrix when you stop playing by its rules. Wake up, Neo.