In the company of innovators

I spent Friday at Gadgetoff, a sort of mini TED with things you can touch. I’ve never been to a TED and not being part of the cult, it seems that a lot of it is in the clouds. I prefer being in a group of people making things.

Some of what we saw was stunning, some not. I was struck by DARPA work in which a monkey with a wired-up brain used thought, not motor nerves, to move an arm at will. Josh Klein presented wonderful work about teaching crows to pick up spare change (and I learned over lunch that crows can recognize distinct humans; he told the story of student researchers who pissed off crows and were dive-bombed individually even years later… crows know people and crows keep grudges). Legendary Marvin Minsky of MIT talked about robots with legs and said, “to me, we’re just big gadgets; we’re made up of lots of little gadgets.” We saw a 3D video camera that can show any angle from a static position and cameras that show patterns of shock waves (amazing watching a bullet). Juan Enriquez talked about work with amazing potential to sniff the DNA in a doctor’s office (and tell you what you have), to treat organs outside the body (zapping the liver with radiation but not the rest of you), and creating fake DNA that could remake organisms to consume coal and put out gas. Shay David of Kaltura showed his neat service enabling collaborative creation of video. Howard Morgan of Idealab bragged about a new electric hybrid car that will cost a quarter to a third of a Tesla; I think I’ll put in an order. I finally got to get my hands on a Chumby. We watched Spore, a great looking game. We were deafened by a jet motorcycle. And on and on.

What struck me was just how wonderful it was to be in the company of innovators and inventors — and the other friends of mine they attracted from many worlds: TV, news, investment. Sure, some of the work is just theoretical and some of it impractical. But tucked inside groups like this are the people who really can and will change the world. The internet was just a simple idea.

So I wish I could often be in the company of such innovators in news. OK, we can’t cure diseases and make monkeys move arms (though if we sit enough of those monkeys and electronic arms in front of keyboards….). But we do desperately need a culture of innovation in news. As I sat there, it occurred to me that maybe we ended up putting together the beginnings of such as collection at our Networked News Summit at CUNY next week, though only focused on one of many, many spheres of innovation we need to explore. I hope that’s true. The week after at the Online News Association we’ll see some of the people from within news organizations who are trying new things — though I keep wishing they’d attract innovators from outside news organizations as well. The week after that, I sadly have to miss Video on the Net this month, for there are folks there who are remaking TV.

What’s the difference between that and Gadgetoff? A little time and daring, that’s all; a little audacity. With the news industry under such incredible pressure, we’re seeing a sudden urgency and thus incremental innovation: change a step at a time. I also think we need to find the means to give wildly creative minds the time to be revolutionary and daring. We need more crazy inventors.

: By the way, Aptera, the cool car, may have the single worst web site I have seen in the last 13 years, since the browser was born. Good car design. Awful web design.