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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The iGeneration

In March of this year, two Limerick businessmen, brothers John and Patrick Collison, sold their company Auctomatic to Canadian company Live Media for the princely sum of $5-million. John, the younger, is still at school. Patrick, now aged 19 and working with Live Media in Canada, previously won at the European Young Scientists Competition in Moscow (2005) for his development of a new programming language. In my view, their achievements illustrate a momentous new trend: the emergence of a young demographic that is hyper-empowered by technology and a simultaneous cultural change that is as important, if not more so, then the upheavals of the 1960s.

Technological innovation and cultural change have always gone hand in hand.
The teenage revolution of the 1950s, which blossomed into the significant socio-political and cultural changes of the 1960s, began with a few simple technical innovations – the electric guitar, the portable record player and the car radio. The invention of the electric guitar by Adolph Rickenbacker in 1931 brought a new sound that set the scene for the convergence of black gospel music and rhythm and blues, bringing it to a majority white audience that adopted it as their own. Early pioneers, such as Bill Hailey and the Comets, were followed by the protégés of the melting-pot Sun Recording Studios in Memphis – Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The distribution of this music then lay in the convergence of another two technological innovations: Ford Motor Cars’ mass assembly-line made automobiles cheaply available to a booming US economy, allowing America’s youth to parade along the streets and boulevards (nostalgically remembered by such films as George Lucas’s American Graffiti). The music emanating from their cars was courtesy of another great technology – the car radio. It was the radio that gave disaffected teens in the suburbs and cities of the US a point of connection as they collectively tuned in to DJs like Wolfman Jack, playing the latest hits coming out of Motown or Sun Studios or whatever was popular in the billboard charts, defining what was cool for the youth of America. Rock ‘n roll became mainstream. It became the vanguard of an empowered teenage movement that was, it would turn out, revving-up for the 1960s.

Technological innovations are today laying the foundations for an equally momentous cultural shift. With the availability of high-speed broadband and cheap digital devices with massive storage capability, young consumers will become united around software developer kits as the DIY ethos of the internet gains pace. Kids of the 1950’s were passive consumers of rock-‘n-roll – getting it where they could on television or radio, in record stores or, even more rarely, at live venues. In contrast, for kids of the 2010s, it won’t just be a style of music that will be swapped, shared and enjoyed, it will be anything that exists in binary code, be it audio, video, games, photos, websites, applications or a ‘mash-up’ of all of them. The only criteria being – as it always has been – ‘Is it cool?’ But a big difference is that no one corporation or individual will be cultural arbiter of what is cool. Instead it will be judged by the wisdom of the crowds spread across the multitude of social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo and the cleverly optimised responses of search engines. This generation’s digital devices will be the equivalent of the car radios and gramophones of the 50s. Today’s adolescents will be both creators and distributors of the content, as they desperately try and define for themselves and their generation what’s cool.

Doors
If we remember the 1950s as setting the scene for the sexual revolution of the Sixties, the Nineties gave us cybernetics and the opportunity to free our minds of the material world as the global consciousness embraced the world wide web… The so-called ‘Flower Power’ generation which had its culmination in 1968, had its beginnings in simple soulful innovations. Fifty years on, technological innovations are currently galvanising the youth scene globally and the Collisons’ success is just one home-grown example of what lies ahead.
The portable record player and the car radio have now been replaced with ubiquitous high-speed broadband and cheap digital devices with massive storage capability. Instead of just music, kids are formulating their identities around a myriad of content – and mainly content that they create, not just what the studios and big corporations want to sell them. In this regard, young people are even more empowered and democratised then ever before. The DIY and Open-Source ethos of the internet has seen an explosion in creativity and innovation that is still not recognised by the mainstream media for a new cultural movement.

Over the next few years, we will increasingly see tech-savvy young consumers becoming united around the software developer kits – which are being provided free of charge by the big technology and social media leviathans such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, MySpace and Google. These kits are exactly what they say on the tin – instructions for how to create cheap, Open-Source software applications over a range of devices and platforms. The motivation for these platform-owners to provide these kits for free is the lure of the advertising dollar as these home-grown applications attract increasingly large and clearly defined audiences to them.

Just as in the late 1990s, when creating websites was ‘the rage’ and courses on HTML and web design were inundated, these kits will allow users create more sophisticated websites (or, more precisely, applications) that can potentially run on a range of devices from a laptop or phone to an Apple iTouch. What will these applications do? Many of them will be incidental and stupid – like interactive video clips, games or those annoying Facebook applications that tell you what sort of vegetable you are.
But, increasingly, they will be more like the sort of business application that John and Patrick Collison sold - theirs allowed eBay users to monitor their inventory

Woodstock: if you build it, will they come?
But this is not the 1960s. If Ireland is to lead the way this time rather then follow the crowd, there are certain key things we need to do, or else watch the likes of India and China run away with the prize. A truth about the Collison story is that their success came not from Irish investment or support, but from attending a Silicon Valley start-up programme called Y Combinator, which introduced the fledgling entrepreneurs to the company that eventually made them rich.

It is a sobering experience to petition a 19-year-old for economic advice, but in a recent interview (with Intruder.TV), Patrick Collison outlined his thoughts on why they left these shores to seek investment elsewhere.

‘Were I doing another company I would either start it out in Silicon Valley or start it here (in Ireland) and move it out [to the Valley]. People can sometimes take this as unpatriotic but it’s not.’

He goes on to explain why the conditions in Ireland in terms of investment and opportunity were not suitable. ‘We could in theory turn Ireland into a very creative start-up hub. We don’t need to change anything for that to happen but at the same time it hasn’t happened yet. It is something we need to work at improving…. [we need to build] up the investment community, encouraging more people to go into technology at third level…’ John Collison has since gone back to finish secondary school. Patrick has moved to Canada to a senior technology role with Live Media.

Cloud Watching
So as we come to the close of this decade, there is a profound structural change happening to the internet. The history of personal computing saw us move from single Personal Computer terminals to Local Area Networks (or LANs) in the 80s, which gave the ability for corporations to share content across their own office networks, regionally and globally. The 90s saw the emergence of the World Wide Web and the interconnection of Personal Computer terminals worldwide, outside the constraints of the corporate office environment. Now, we are witnessing another rapidly pluralizing change known as ‘Cloud Computing’, where a range of internet-enabled devices, from mobile phones to laptops and MP3 players, are connecting to each other and, more importantly, to a network of third-party hosting solutions – the so-called ‘Cloud’ .

These third-party hosts (such as Amazon or Google, many of whom are providing the software-developer kits) offer free hosting capacity for content and applications created using these kits within their ‘Cloud Computing’ network. In effect, the barrier to entry for entrepenuers and would-be entertainers to offer content and services over a range of internet-enabled devices to a global audience has been effectively removed.

All that is required to get in on the action is a personal computer, a broadband connection and basic IT skills. Users will simply upload and store their self-created content and applications and freely allow other people download and modify them. ‘Cloud computing’ is the term used to describe this service and it is most certainly the next big leap for the internet and all devices that connect to it.

Let the Children Play
The times they are a-changing and Ireland needs to keep up. First, we need to ensure that our broadband infrastructure is up-to-scratch and made available to everyone in society. We need it to be free, where possible – in libraries, schools and urban centres, and cheaply available anywhere else. Second, we need to educate our young people in the many software developer kits that are already available for a host of devices and online applications such as Apple iPhone, iTouch, Facebook and Google Apps. These allow anyone to program applications across a range of devices and platforms and give enthusiasts the tools and instructions to create applications on whatever infrastructure that the patron provides – such as Google, Amazon or Facebook. For example: mashing-up Google Maps with a dog walking service or an online treasure-hunt could suddenly create a workable business proposition for little or no money in terms of prototype and development.

When we have achieved this, then we can truly claim to have a knowledge society and encourage other young entrepreneurs to emulate the teenage millionaires John and Patrick Collison who sold their eBay application for more than €3-million this year. Never before has the opportunity existed for such immediate access to global markets with such small start-up costs – all that is required is a broadband connection, a PC and increasingly perfunctory ICT skills and anyone can be selling digital content and applications online to a global audience.
So rather then having a sullen teenager sitting in their bedroom listening to obscure music, we can have active teenagers sharing their content and better still, earning their own pocket money from a range of entrepreneurial activities. It’s not Rock and Roll, but mark my words…they’ll like it.

- An Article by Neil Leyden from Enterprise Ireland's Technology Ireland supplement.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 10:25 a.m.

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