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Will Our Industry Ever Innovate Like Morse? Probably Not.

By - July 10, 2012

Last month I finished a compelling biography of Samuel Morse: Lightning Man: The Accursed Life Of Samuel F.B. Morse, by Pulitzer-prize winning author Kenneth Silverman. If you’re a fan of great biographies, or just want to learn more about the history of both our industry and of the United States during a seminal and innovative period, I certainly recommend this book.

If you had no idea that Morse was an acclaimed painter – possibly one of the top US artists of his era – well you’re in good company. I had no idea either. Born just a few years after the Constitutional convention, Morse grew up as one of the first native expressions of the new country that was America. A gifted painter, Morse never quite found his voice – his failure to create a masterpiece, in fact, drove his obsession with making his name as an inventor.

It was on a return trip from Europe in 1832, where he was studying art in Italy, that Morse came upon the idea for the telegraph. He was hardly alone, but his version of the idea turned out to be the most efficient and useful of many devised during the mid 1800s. Morse doggedly pursued his invention, convinced it was world changing. He was right, of course – but what I found most extraordinary about his story was how long Morse fought to get anyone to pay attention to his work, and, once proven, how hard he had to fight to keep claim to what was rightfully his.

Morse worked on perfecting his telegraph for nearly 15 years, and once he finally managed to demonstrate its efficacy, he endured several decades of lawsuits, public defamation, and endless commercial battles to maintain both his place in history as well as some claim to the fortunes created by his invention. In short, Morse’s life was pretty damn hellish for someone who laid the foundation for all that came after – including the modern Internet.

I can only imagine what Morse might think of the mayfly-like successes of “inventions” like Instagram, or Pinterest, or even Facebook and Google, compared with the ridicule, infamy, and commercial skullduggery he had to endure to finally see his contributions recognized, late in his life, after nearly four decades of struggle.

And it makes me wonder if our industry, for all its innovation, will ever be capable of the kind of breakthroughs that Morse represents – the man was past 50 years old when he first demonstrated his invention, and just past 80 when the world finally celebrated him as the “Father of the Telegraph.”  Imagine that – someone in the Internet industry, today, a founder with his or her first product who works on a prototype for 15 years, then introduces it at age 50?!

Of course, times are quite different today, and far faster to boot. Morse lived in a time when most of Europe was regularly at war with itself, when Britain invaded the United States, and he lived to watch the horrors of the Civil War unfold. His life spanned from America’s early, agrarian beginnings to the full bloom of the industrial age. And his invention had much to do with that shift: the telegraph shrank time and space to nearly nothing – allowing, for the first time, information to be communicated “as if by lightning.” Combined with the other great innovation of the day – the railroad – the telegraph allowed America to conquer its vast space and resources, and rise to become the most important power in the world.

When I think of the work Morse did, and the time it took him to do it, only a few people – and the companies they built – come to mind. One is Google, and the tinkering and invention Larry Page and Sergey Brin are encouraging through Google X. Another is Microsoft, which continues to drive innovation outside of its core revenue base through Microsoft Research. And another is IBM. But as much as I’d like to think that a lone inventor, obsessed to the point of near bankruptcy, might one day invent something that will forever change our world, I’m not sure that’s even possible anymore. It feels like an era that’s well over. Perhaps I’m wrong, but ….

I’ll get more into the impact of the telegraph in a review of The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, by Tom Standage (a must read for anyone in our industry, I’d wager). I finished that book a few weeks ago – and yes, I’m very far behind in my reviews here. Forgive me, I’ve been a bit distracted with family and work!

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

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Year Zero: This Is What the Beach Was Made For

By -

It’s summertime, and if you’re not already lying on a beach somewhere, I’ve got a good reason for you to go: My friend Rob Reid’s new novel is out today, and it’s absolutely tailor made for beach reading. It’s called Year Zero, and it’s a hilarious send up of the music industry, mixed, naturally, with a ripping yarn about aliens, romance, and intergalatic politics.

Rob let me read an early-ish draft of the book, and I loved it. It’s his first novel, years in the making, and it’s a masterstroke.

Given all the headlines just this week about the music industry’s endless self-inflicted woes, Rob’s timing couldn’t be better. Here are just two, ripped from my favorite aggregator Media ReDEFined just this week:

How Big Music Threatened Startups and Killed Innovation

Are There Too Many Music Streaming Services?

Not to mention, of course, the ongoing Kim Dotcom/Pirate Bay drama.

You guys know I don’t often recommend fiction – but despite the fact that Rob and I are drinking buddies, I must say, this is one book I can tell you to go buy, now!

Below is the Year Zero “trailer,” an idea I plan to steal for my book when it comes out next year!

Halfway Through The Year: How’re The Predictions Doing?

By - July 02, 2012

It’s time to review how my Predictions 2012 are faring, now that half the year has slipped by (that was fast, no?).

One thing that stands out is the timing wrt Twitter – my first two predictions were about the company, and now that I think about it, given the news just this week (and the attendant debate), I should have realized how the two could be in direct conflict with each other. It all makes for some interesting chin stroking, which I’m busy doing while on vacation – fishing the Rio Blanco up above Meeker in Colorado. Yes, you may now give me shit for writing that.

But to the review: I’ll take them one at a time:

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

Twitter will become a force as a media company, not just a platform for others’ media.

Well, we’re only six months in, but I’d say this is happening, full force. From expanded tweets to hosting photos and videos to creating brand pages to major deals with entertainment companies, Twitter is certainly becoming a major media company. I predicted it will improve its Discover feature (it continues to – this is and has been critical to its success with Promoted Tweets, esp. in mobile), and that it’d roll out something like Flipboard. That hasn’t happened yet, but I’d wager it’s coming….

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago

Every major player on the Internet will have to do a deal with Twitter, and Twitter will emerge as a Swiss like, open, neutral player in the battle for the consumer web.

Hmmm. I am not sure if this is happening quite as I might have predicted. Just this past week, Twitter cut LinkedIn off, but that doesn’t mean a new deal isn’t in the works, or that the way the old deal was going made anyone at either company – or their customers – happy. On other fronts, Twitter is flowing through search results at Bing, but no renewed deal with Google yet. Twitter is on stronger footing with Facebook than it was before – with a reciprocal deal finally in place. But its moves in media might mean it begins to act in a protective, domain-specific way over the next six months. I hope not. In other news, this move – the Twitter Transparency Report – is sure welcome news. I wrote about this just a few weeks ago….and suggested Twitter might be next. See: Google’s Transparency Report: A Good And Troubling Thing

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network

Facebook will launch a web-wide competitor to AdSense.

Well, it’s certainly looking like this is coming true. Not only has Facebook begun the process by allowing its ads to be shown on Zynga.com, it also has offered its own inventory up for third-party exchanges. Both moves augur a next step: a web-wide competitor to AdSense. I’m still a bit nervous this won’t happen this year, but I’d wager it’s going to come at some point soon.

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

Despite doing well overall, Google will fumble one big play this year. 

Well, early in the year, the Search Plus Your World fracas seemed quite a fumble, but that tempest has cooled, at least for now. However, the company is the target of several government probes, and it remains to be seen how its perceived early missteps might play out.

Predictions 2012 #5: A Big Year for M&A

2012 may well be the biggest year of all for Internet M&A.

OK, I mentioned Instagram as a probable candidate, but it’s not like that wasn’t pretty damn obvious if you were paying attention. I don’t have all the numbers in, but man, it’s been a huge year so far for M&A in our space. We’ll see by the end of the year if it’s a record.

Predictions 2012 #6: “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark

We’ll all start to question what role the corporation plays in our society and culture.

This one is fuzzy to begin with – it’s hard to prove such a zeitgeisty prediction. A challenge to Citizens v. United failed to get the court’s attention, had it been reviewed, we’d certainly be talking about this issue a lot more. I’d wager I might be a bit early on this one.

Predictions 2012 #7: Shooting From The Hip

In which I cover ten or so other rapid fire predictions. In turn:

- Obama will win the 2012 election, thanks in part to the tech community rallying behind him due to issues like SOPA, visas, and free speech.

Can’t call this one yet!

- Both Apple and Amazon will make billion-dollar acquisitions. More interestingly, so will Facebook.

One down, two to go….

- Android will be brought to heel by Google, eliciting both massive complaints and cheers, depending on where you sit.

 Seems to be happening, from accounts I’ve read.

 - Microsoft Windows Phone will become the Bing of mobile (IE, move into double digit market share).

 The phone is clearly a win for Microsoft so far, we’ll have to wait for version 8 to see if it maintains double digit share.

 - Microsoft Xbox will integrate meaningfully with the web (Kinect is key), and start to compete in social across the digital spectrum

This is happening in some ways (an ecosystem is developing) but I’m not sure yet about social…

- IBM will emerge as a key player in the consumer Internet.

 Not yet. But it is an emerging player in marketing IT, which drives much of the consumer Internet.

 - China will be caught spying on US corporations, especially tech and commodity companies. Somewhat oddly, no one will (seem to) care.

It’s happening, but we haven’t yet had the spectacular news (like the Google hack last year) that folks can then ignore.

- A heads up display for the web will launch that actually is worth using, but most likely in limited use cases.

Thanks, Google Glass!

All in all, not so bad for six months in. There’s still a lot of time to either prove me a fool, or of Nostradamus’ lineage.

Related:

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did