Situated on an island between Aeaea and the Rock of Scylla lived the seductive Sirens. In the heroic journeys of Odysseus and Orpheus, these mythic seductive beauties figure mightily into the character refinement of the epic. In the former, the Sirens were temptresses placed in the story to prove the capacity to suffer through the agony of self-imposed enticement. In the latter, the musical enchantresses served as the counterpoint to the power of a persistent and inviolate "sweeter song". These beauties enticed men to their watery graves by singing so sweetly that their irresistible attraction overcame self-preservation and security.
I was reminded of this iconic myth at a recent conference. Young men and women from across the globe were invited to "pitch" their entrepreneurial ventures to panels of acclaimed executives and investors. One by one, they came on stage for their 3 minute catwalk. They were attired in Silicon Valley chic. Jeans, canvas sneakers, t-shirts, and, if you're lucky, a sport coat. Fifteen years earlier, none of them would have been thusly attired and, for that matter, no one in their communities would have ever engaged in a solicitation for patronage without a remarkably different decorum. But never mind that, we were in the Mecca of the Valley rather than the peninsula. Each one of these "entrepreneurs" entirely conformed to their perception of what it takes to attract monied moths to their light and were doing their level best in projecting their desirability. Longing for someone or something that would evidence non-conformist thinking or bold risk taking, I was offered tiny glimpses of possible exception but, in the main, saw global youth joining the vampirish chorus of the Sirens.
But what was more disheartening was what was being promoted as exciting new ventures. Rather than identifying new technologies and utilities, the majority of creativity was localization of a narrow swath of social media where the only innovation was the millennia-old cipher called language. From match making to job hunting to gaming - apparently what the Middle East, Asia, and Africa really need is apps in local languages. And through the cunning use of - hold your breath for this - language - whole enterprises could be born! Really? Our brightest, most creative minds should be celebrated for coming up with the idea of translation? And seriously, is the 25% unemployment of youth in the Middle East going to be solved by having an Arabic Linked-In or Monster?
When Edison decided to electrocute dogs, horses and elephants to prove that Westinghouse's idea of alternating current (which we now use safely) was dangerous, he was unaware that in a few short years, his proof-of-danger exhibition would usher in a more "humane" form of execution for humans. On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler's 17-second almost death by electric chair was eulogized as evidence that this "culmination of ten years of work and study," allowed humanity to "live in a higher civilization." He also couldn't have imagined that his epic battle with Westinghouse - in which Nikola Tesla played the role of mercenary pawn - would exterminate inquiry into distributed energy in any form other than electricity. His innovation in harnessing current would in fact form the dominant animating force for human endeavors and concepts like wind, water, light, heat and gravity would be marginalized to the point of endanger relegated to serve as "alternatives" subjugated to feeding the electric currency-based industrial and social mandate. Innovations that once harnessed manual, animal, gravitational, magnetic, thermal, and kinetic forces were enslaved to the 60 Hz, 120V archetype and to this day, "over unity" and "free energy" still holds itself hostage to "proofs" based on shoving energy into a 130 year old utility.
Social media and digital content - a miniscule fraction of the illegitimate offspring of the electrical age - now reign supreme. Our modern innovators are encouraged and seduced into applying their energies into progressively narrower applications of an already constrained memetic scaffold. But the Dawkinsian suggestion that replications of cultural units (memes) should be discerned and integrated based on the mandate that best serves their culture or "host" seems to be violated in the fact that we're celebrating the trivial at the expense of the consequential. More Angry Birds in any language is just an expanding flock of mentally disengaged humans. The Words-With-Friends substitution for conversations with friends does not a community make.
My friend Ed West has come up with a platform called Hylo. It's a collaborative environment in which individuals can express their capabilities to act and serve and define places in which they could use provisions, support or assistance. Ed's trying to suggest that all human endeavors - digital or analog - will benefit from an environment in which capacity and capability are ever-present and sufficient to meet the needs of all actors within a system. And since its nascent stage, "it" (the impulse and the model) has manifest in real estate redevelopment, social spaces, inter-personal relationships, new media, and a host of other outcomes. It's using the digital utility to enrich the analog world - not be dependent on or enslaved to it. Ed's toiling to evidence a model for what it means to step away from the conformity impulse and - with Sirens as back-up singers - follow an Orphean tune.