Lady Gaga blared from the speakers as my 16 year old daughter drove away from the house. I didn’t want to like Lady Gaga, but her duet with Elton John at the Grammys changed everything. She seemed to draw strength with every traded verse, turning his phrasing to her advantage, his blues to her power. This was not a generational shift, but a reach across the eras.
Now there was my little girl moving out of sight with her precious cargo, our youngest daughter, on the way to school and beyond. For a second we glanced at each other with a nervous giggle, then drank in a day with new eyes. A day where the world prepares for the coming of the iPad. A day where health care reform was debated and both Democrats and Republicans were coaxed out of hiding.
Whatever you think of the merits of the positions, the debate in Washington was good for both parties. Republicans came prepared, with a clever mixture of partisan politics and pragmatic courage to avoid crossing the line from talking points to personal insults and worse. For their part, the Democrats let Obama carry the ball, getting away with it because of his skill and command of the details but finally showing the passion that fuels their cause if it is to prevail.
The media was less impressive, with Fox Business News the only cable feed that stayed with most of the live coverage. MSNBC and CNN seem to have switched roles in the year-long debate, moving away to talking heads on the former to blather on repetitively before bailing altogether for the Olympics, while capturing more of the underlying dynamics on the latter. I finally gave up switching to stay with the event and watched the rest on the MacBook Air via CSPAN. Next stop, the iPad.
The tech agenda seems similarly polarized, what with Buzz this and Facebook patents that. But I get the strong feeling that no one has yet succeeded in smoking out the real work that needs to be done in the few short weeks before the iPad arrives. There’s a lot of phony outrage about Apple and Google soaking Techmeme, as though big companies with aggressive agendas is something new and more fearsome because of the scale at which net giants operate.
But I keep coming back to my daughter driving off to greet the day. At some point we have to just hand over the keys and strike out in the new day. We shouldn’t be so worried about demagogues in corporate boardrooms when we face them every day in our aggregators from every nook and cranny. Trading one clever pitchman for another does nothing to solve our problems, nor does it speak to the opportunities that lurk.
It seems we haven’t learned what it’s like to be a child in parent’s clothing. We pretend we are adults while doing whatever we can to shift the burden of choices to circumstances, class, timing, and history. We search for signs of strength and chinks in the armor where we can attack and slingshot ahead. We sneer at the callous while coveting their power.
The iPad is so difficult to handicap, say the daily newsbytes: you’re no iPhone, they maintain. But after missing the signals about the iPhone, then Twitter, then realtime, then Nexus One, we shouldn’t mistake the new device’s deficiencies for what will be unleashed over the new platform. Look through the new eyes of the initiate, where the open road holds limitless possibilities.
So much of the social media stream is meant to be routed rather than absorbed, pushed to an expanding circle of tidal pools for decoration with our behavior. Even the latest entrant, Buzz, holds promise in its naive ready-to-be-enhanced template. It’s surprisingly free of constraints at this early stage, ready to be hooked in and out of the stream and shared with other systems more and less tuned to this new public thoroughfare.
Right now we’re floundering in the tyranny of middle age, thinking we know what blogging and tweeting and social graph are all about while at the same time already tiring of the glut of mediocrity and the lack of inspiration. The young and the old know better, flush with an appreciation of the time before them to celebrate or squander. The understanding that whatever words come next are to be laid out like diamonds in a row, subject only to the value they represent or create.
We so quickly calcify our latest inventions in the rush to quantify them, not letting the rhythm and rhyme continue to build. We cash our chips in too early, playing it safe when the world could end at any second. All the while, the detectives caution us that the moment is not profound, that the results are already in or fixed, that we should not hope for too much lest we fall even shorter for dreaming. It’s a shallow way to live, pretty much not at all.
I was talking with an old friend last night, about a musician who I once thought disliked me. No, my friend said, everybody disliked me, especially me. It was a shallow way to live, and I stand guilty as charged then and even now. But that’s no excuse to not understand a series of really good ideas that have been building for a while now. Just think how everything can change when viewed through the lenses of the young and old.
Try predicting the iPad will fail. Explain to me how we don’t want to lean back and paddle calmly through the stream, pausing to sip at a wise post, sample a live event, sit in as our friends debate an issue of the day, enjoy a laugh, serve a customer with intelligence and care, put the whole thing down with a feeling of satisfaction and the delight of looking forward to coming back for more in good time.
Explain to me how this can’t produce a better quality of work, a better kind of listening, a better balance of silence and impact, the chance for real progress instead of flacid soundbytes and endless posturing. Isn’t that a lot to expect from just another shiny new object you say? Sure, but it’s not the technology that I’m betting on, it’s what rides on the cushion of air that I expect to be great. It’s a magic carpet we’re building on, and if we just look at it through the eyes of a brand new day, we’re sure to invent things that will in turn drive the next wave of devices.
On March 9, a new Jimi Hendrix album will ship. The artist lived to release just 3 records, famous for just 4 years. But he took his success and plowed it into a recording studio, where he spent the last year of his life in a constant state of experimentation and exploration. The Hendrix estate estimates they have a decade’s worth of material to release. Today you can buy a digital recorder that does much of what Hendrix’s studio could do for $200 on Craig’s List.
As Saul Hansell says on this week’s Gillmor Gang, “If we’re not willing to make big, bold mistakes, we’re never going to accomplish anything.” Hansell has left the New York Times after 15 years to join the latest incarnation of AOL, what Andrew Keen jokes sounds like a startup, “a huge company that clearly doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up.” Hansell takes it as a compliment; Keen says it’s not meant to be.
Living with realtime will be an adventure for some, a terror for others. But for our children, who don’t know enough to be scared, and those of us who can recognize something special even when we don’t understand precisely why, the iPad is a big deal because it looks just like what we imagined the future would be.