The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a light little piece I wrote on The Tech Bloom today.
Tech Bloom in full flower
By ALEX STEFFEN
When the markets crashed and the money steamed from high-tech like coolant from a blown radiator, most of us made a logical assumption: The engine of technological innovation was shot and things would settle down and act normal.
If this is normal, I don't want to meet weird. In basements, garages and the empty warehouses that once held the Next Big Thing, tech-savvy folks are huddled over their laptops, working together online to give away the future. The result? We're seeing a surge of technological creativity that easily trumps anything we dreamed of with the dot-com PR guys crooning in our ears.
There's the software, such as Linux, where teams of coders are working collaboratively in every corner of the globe to perfect what's rapidly becoming the world's most important operating system. "Peer-to-peer" programs, Napster's cousins, are busily creating networks of millions of users all giving each other software, movies, music, books -- nearly anything that can be digitized, whether they own it or not. "Distributed computing" projects use the idle power of volunteers' home PCs to tackle massive tasks such as mapping genes and scanning the stars for intelligent life.
There's the hardware. "WiFi" aficionados are manically building free, ubiquitous, high-speed wireless Internet coverage for entire cities. GeekCorps is off wiring the world's poor. Others are hacking together "Freekboxes" from free software and recycled parts and shipping them to developing world human rights activists.
There's even the content. Slashdot, spinning the planet's best "news for nerds" out of little more than the enthusiasm of its users, and Wikipedia, compiling the world's first collaboratively built encyclopedia. Or the countless Web logs, travel guides, online libraries and college classes (like MIT's OpenCourseWare). Or Craigslist and Tribe.Net and the thousand other new free ways to find a date, a roommate or an honest mechanic. There's even a new form of copyright, the Creative Commons license, to help you give stuff away while protecting it from theft -- a legal system for sharing, a "copyleft."
All this only skims the inbox of what's going on. There are so many new projects that a friend who reports on technology says "keeping up right now is like trying to see the entire Louvre in a day."
Welcome to the Tech Bloom.
The conventional wisdom, during the Tech Boom, was that what drove innovation was the lure of giant piles of cash. That idea now rubs shoulders with the Berlin Wall. What makes creative people tingle are interesting problems, the chance to impress their friends and caffeine. Freed from the pursuit of paper millions, geeks are doing what geeks, by nature, really want to be doing: making cool stuff.
Not just making it, but giving it away. Saying the Tech Bloom is not commercially driven is like saying Mother Teresa had an interest in the poor.
Which may be why the media haven't quite gotten the magnitude of what's happening here: It's not about investments. If the Tech Boom had a graven image, it was the bull on Wall Street. The Tech Bloom is more likely to be found dancing around the desert at Burning Man, the annual festival where money is taboo, everything's a gift and creative participation is synonymous with cool.
And like Burning Man, it has its problems. Some folks are better off buying their software and entertainment from big, stable corporations, just like some people would be well advised to skip Burning Man and spend the week in Reno shooting craps. Neither seems likely to soon overtake its mainstream competition.
But the Bloom gets bigger every day, and there's no telling where these things might lead. Don't take my word for it. Try it out. Help build something online, give it away and see how you feel. You might feel the ground moving beneath your mouse.