Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rudolph's Sticky Idea

Its that time of year again when the signs of the season descend upon us. The weather gets colder. The regular holiday street players dust themselves off. Human resources sends out open enrollment notices.

I was reminded of this by an advertisement I saw on CNBC from a company whose memorable tag line is, "Ask about it at work".

I will never be able to watch the Rankin-Bass classic again without hearing "Aflac!" screaming softly in the back of my mind.

Ideas have many intangible properties. Stickiness is one of them. If Aflac's advertising campaigns over the years had employed a used-car sales approach to supplemental insurance, I doubt they'd still be in business. (I'm not sure that supplemental insurance is a blood-pumping topic of discussion, though I welcome to be proven wrong if anyone at Aflac is reading this). The invocation of pop-culture icons as a foundation in which Aflac's story is re-told, makes their idea one that is both sticky, and pervasive.

The stickiness of ideas is the subject of a book published earlier this year. In "Made to Stick", authors Chip and Dan Heath look at six essential qualities of ideas that make them effective in influencing thought, and changing behaviour.

One example is the concreteness of an idea. Chip and Dan remind us that while the language of communicating ideas is often abstract (a favorite of theirs is "idiopathic cardiomyopathy"), life is not abstract. Abstraction makes it very difficult to understand and remember ideas. I can certainly agree with this.

Ultimately, what winning ideas need is gift-wrapping from their own personal Aesop.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why Johnny Can't Innovate

I have had a unique opportunity over the last five years to teach and facilitate product and process innovation to nearly one hundred leading companies, many in the Fortune 500. Each week, I work side by side with thought leaders and senior management from many industries. Over the years, I have noticed a common set of six barriers to successful innovation. I witness these barriers week after week, independent of the specific company I am working with or its industry sector (though each company / sector adds its own unique spice of personality, politics, and process to the problem). This article is the first in a series in which I would like to share some of my observations.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote of the poorly-developed reading skills of contemporary American children, in his well known classic, "Why Johnny Can't Read". In it, he claimed that the education establishment was failing by teaching reading skills as a “read and guess” method of word association to subject context.

When it comes to innovation skills, we rarely seek out any education or skill training before the need arises to come up with a game changing idea. Most innovation practitioners, in my experience, are self-taught on a just-in-time basis. As a result, bright ideas from thought leaders tend to appear (initially) through serendipity. Consequently, repeatable innovation means guessing, a lot. The practice of innovation, then, becomes an exhaustive experience, which sets up many possibilities for failure. Innovation, taking on the stigma of risk and failure, is avoided as a general practice. It is instead marched out for special circumstances (usually a crisis), which, as a result, guarantees that a prior lack of institutional learning of fundamental innovation barriers, will stop innovation time and again.

So, in the spirit of a similar question asked over fifty years ago (with the understanding that our protagonist can be male or female):
Why can't Johnny innovate?
In my experience, some or all of the following six reasons (in no specific order) will likely stop Johnny from coming up with a great idea.
  • He doesn’t have any incentive.
  • He doesn’t have the time.
  • He’s disconnected from key technical expertise.
  • He’s not trained, adept, or comfortable with proactive, creative thought.
  • He doesn’t have immediate or easy access to critical knowledge.
  • He can’t look beyond his immediate problem-solving needs.
Even in reviewing this succinct list, there are, no doubt, short term measures which innovation practitioners, managers, and executives can take to avoid the more immediate barriers. Such measures, however, rarely translate into sustainable innovation practices or organizational transformation to a highly-effective innovation company.

Over the coming weeks, I will be offering in follow-on articles some of my observations from the field as to how each of these barriers to innovation manifest themselves, and how to mitigate or eliminate their impacts on the innovation practitioner, organization, and company.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Art of (Spinning) War

I'm on vacation for a few days, and this evening I was at my local Borders Bookstore, browsing the bookshelves and working on an upcoming article about barriers to innovation.

I'm extremely interested in early and mid-20th century graphic design, illustration, and propaganda of technology and industrial society. Long before the advent of global communications networks, blogs, and limitless viewpoints of any human event, pictures were truly the most efficient form of communication. They had to be worth a thousand words or more to get their points across. During times of conflict, posters were critical tools of governments (and their opposition) to communicate social, political, and cultural arguements using iconic imagery and visual metaphor to sway the opinions of millions.

The Imperial War Museum in London has recently opened an exhibit of war posters spanning nearly 90 years. "Weapons of Mass Communication" showcases one of the finest collections of coercive art in the world. (The exhibition runs through March of 2008.) While browsing the art history section at Borders, I spotted the book of the exhibition which features over 300 of the posters and many of their back stories. I have been unable to put this book down.

James Aulich, of the Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design, has assembled in this book, an incredible collection of war poster art. His research and commentary detail the battles waged for the hearts and minds of World War I, Interwar Europe, World War II, the Cold War and contemporary generations upto and including the current Iraq conflict.

One of the images from the exhibit is particularly striking. In 1917, Henri Montassier created this image for a proclaimation that France had "discovered the machine to end the war". The imagery depicts the scale of casualties already suffered which weighed heavily on many nations of Europe. The machine imagery is not a vision of contemporary armaments, but is instead akin to the Martian war machines described in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, published only 20 years prior.

If you have an opportunity to see the exhibit first hand, or spend an afternoon with the book, I would highly recommend it. Whether your appreciation is for vintage art styles and techniques of eras gone by, or looking through a window in time on a variety of societal levels, I think you'll find the experience rather captivating.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Techno Samhain

Tonight is Halloween, and the ghosts and goblins are making their annual trek from WalMart and beyond to grace our doorsteps with threats of mischief and requests for colorfully wrapped pieces of high-fructose corn syrup.

The name Halloween is derived from the night preceding a Christian holiday. All Hallows' Eve, or the Eve of All Hallows, comes the night before All Hallows' Day (also called Hallowmas, All Saints' Day, or All Souls Day). All Hallows' Day (and all its related names) is celebrated on November 1st, or the first Sunday after Pentecost in honor of all souls, known and unknown, who have departed this world for the next.

The ritual of remembering the dead is not unique to Christianity. In Wiccan circles, October 31st is known by the name Samhain, which is a celebration of and for the dead. The departed (family members, loved ones, and ancestors) are remembered and often invited to participate in the celebration and ceremony to offer guidance and remind the living of their connection to the past.

Learning from our past connections is extremely valuable. As we move further into the 21st century, our connections with technology become almost inseperable. So as we push technological innovations in every facet of our lives, it can be useful to periodically reflect on their progenitors (especially as we obsolete them at an every increasing pace).

Take, for example, digital and high-definition television technologies. The promise of hundreds of truly life-like HD channels is upon us. Within 2 years, HDTV will become ubiquitous, as the broadcast spectrum of the 20th century is retired. Within one generation, labels such as "VHF", "UHF" and "broadcast networks" will have become long forgotten.

So, on this night, let's remember one of the ancestors of modern entertainment technology.

In 1963, a revolution in television was taking place as color was replacing black and white. Television programming was just beginning to move into this uncharted territory, and the number of shows that were filmed in color would depend on the adoption of this new technology in a market that was filled with black and white television sets. RCA, in its continued reign as a television technology pioneer, began to market a line that would help guarentee that color would replace black & white as the standard set in every home.

It was not the first time that "Vista" swept the nation...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Paving over constraints...

This morning, I was commenting over on Innovating to Win in reference to a recent New York Times article covering the latest re-think on the automotive industry.

Shai Agassi is lining up venture capital firms to the tune of about $200 million to invest in modifying the current electric grid with an intelligent battery charging and replacement infrastructure, on the idea that most of the major car manufacturers are already well down the road to mass-production electric cars.

Any engineering design involves tradeoffs. In my comments over on Innovating to Win, I pointed out that a petroleum sourcing problem which the automotive industry is clearly facing, will be replaced with a toxic waste disposal problem.

It made me think about a recent (and I'll go out on a limb and say one of my all time favorite) example of innovation, constraints, and trade-offs, which recently aired on the BBC's "Top Gear" program.

This is a speed test of the Bugatti Veyron, which is one of the fastest production cars in the world. What I find so entertaining in this piece are the tradeoffs apparently required to push the Veyron to sustained speeds of 250 miles per hour (including a fuel to tire lifecycle ratio that approaches 1, and a straight stretch of road that disappears over the curvature of the earth).

A note to anyone who might be in sales at a growing company (say perhaps, of innovation software) - If your CEO sponsors a contest for the top sales executive of the year which includes a new car "to be determined", suggest the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 (and let me know how it goes).

More likely, if your company is operating under tighter fiscal constraints, you could still do very nicely to suggest this politically correct, hip, and environmentally savvy Peel P50 that was apparently way ahead of its time in 1963.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Enjoying one day at the top...

About every ten years or so, my friend Sheila makes a personal, brief and insightful comment that gets me thinking for a long time (usually until she makes another, similar comment). In my early twenties, she told me that I was going to become a very interesting person. When I turned thirty, she told me that the best years of my life were about to begin.

According to any number of timepieces, calendars or cosmic clocks, I've recently turned 41. The past decade has marked the usual assortment of milestones (both good and bad) that one might expect on a journey towards the universal finish line. During the past 5 years, I've been part of a great turnaround story with my current employer. As a result, our company has very recently grown out of our offices in the north end of Boston, and we now find ourselves occupying the 39th floor of the Prudential Tower.

As with many cities, Boston's skyline is distinctive and highly recognizable by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. Several skyscrapers (including the Prudential Tower) stand out as landmarks, and having a business at this address is highly coveted. The view from the Prudential Tower is something that relatively few people get to experience first hand. On my first visit to our new office, I made it a point to bring a camera and create a panorama to remember the vista I currently share with my colleagues from our position high above the city.

Our view from the east-facing side of the building stretches from Cambridge and points north on the left to 111 Huntington Street and points south on the right. I sent this picture to a number of my colleagues and friends, including Sheila. Sheila wrote back to me with a simple comment that, as with her comments in the past, has got me thinking, and will likely follow me for at least another ten years. Her comment was very simple.

Enjoy life at the top.

To me, that's a very powerful statement at this point in my life. A top implies a pinnacle, or a height which sits above a much larger landscape of places one could be, both physically and figuratively. It reminds me that what goes up, often comes down. As much as a journey worth taking holds the promise of rewards at its peak, ignoring the rewards the journey can offer along the way is mistake far too many of us make in our lives. We can choose to follow a path with the single-minded goal of getting to its end, or we can let the journey teach and enrich us many steps along the way.

So I decided to make it a point that today, October 24, 2007, I would enjoy as much as life had to offer me where ever I could during this day.

The first thing the day has to offer is that I am making a rare trip into our new office, which is a stone's throw (at least from the roof) from Fenway Park, where this evening, the 2007 American League Champion Boston Red Sox will host the Colorado Rockies in Game 1 of the World Series. I can't say that I've ever had a reason to travel to a city on the first day of a World Series before, and my new commute has put me in the thick of the excitement.

I'm still figuring out the new commute. I have a home in the western suburbs of Boston, and the move the Prudential Tower means that I'm now parking at Riverside Station and taking the Green Line into the city. The Boston subway system is the oldest in the nation and has a rich and colorful history. More recently, Boston was one of the last metropolitan transit systems to eliminate a token / turnstyle fare system for an electronic "stored value" system which was branded as the "Charlie Card" by the MBTA. The character of 'Charlie' is in reference to a famous folk song that told the unfortunate story of a man (Charlie) doomed to ride the subway on principle after being trapped by an in-transit fare increase.

The spur of the Green Line that I need to ride to the Prudential Tower stops at Fenway and Kenmore Station just prior to where I exit to complete my walk to the tower elevators. Today's ride was certainly more packed than usual as many of the local chapters of Red Sox nation wanting to be part of the excitement were flocking to Yawkey Way. This made for a very long commute and a rather cramped subway car. It did not, however, impede the trolley conductor from being diligent in collecting fares from folks entering the rear of the trolley cars who would normally be expected to walk forward and swipe their Charlie Cards or Charlie Tickets.

A number of the incidental riders likely heading in for today's festivities (young students) would get on from the rear of the car, and assume that the car was too packed for the conductor to hold up the trolley. They were wrong. The conductor soon announced that at the next stop, he was going to come back and count the Red Sox t-shirts he hadn't seen come forward to pay their fares and ask them to get off the trolley.

So as we rumbled and squeaked our way to the impending showdown, life began to imitate art in a way which could make Nick Reynolds come out of retirement. A number of the would-be fare evaders pulled out their cell phones and called ahead to friends (presumably living one or more stops ahead of us) trying to convince them to come down to the (upcoming) subway stops and pass a Charlie Ticket through the door when it arrived, allowing them to continue the trip to Fenway Park.

Through the miracle of modern communications, a small flurry of Charlie Tickets entered the car at the next stop, which made me reflect on why Charlie's wife even bothered with sandwiches for all those years....

Before long, I emerged from underneath the city, and made my way down Newbury Street, across Boylston Street and into the Pru, finally arriving at the 39th floor. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be in New Mexico, but a last minute change from my client had kept me in Boston for once.

The last time the Red Sox won to the World Series …ok…the only time in my life (and the lives of several billion others) that the Red Sox won the World Series, I was in San Jose. I cheered along with the dozen or so from Red Sox nation who were trapped on business at our hotel while the Prince of Darkness was being fitted for ice skates. I had to settle for a Californian color commentary on the celebrations in Boston except where I could find low-bandwidth streaming video from WHDH or other Boston stations.

Now, at the start of another World Series, I’m not just in the area, I’m less than 2 miles from the park, and less than 12 hours from the start of Game 1. While I have a better chance today at getting a parking ticket than a ticket to the game, the lure of the ballpark, today of all days, is simply irresistible. My mind made up, I decided to experience opening day of a World Series outside Fenway Park.
In the early afternoon, I walked down Boylston Street, looped around Ipswitch Street, and soon was facing one of half a dozen or so surface parking lots that surround Fenway.

If you didn’t know that the eyes of the world were descending onto Landsdowne Street and Yawkey Way, the lack of any lot parking due to an invasion of satellite trucks might have tipped you off that something was up. There were trucks from all the New England and Mid-Atlantic media, Denver, FOX Sports, and rented rigs with armies of reporters, technical staff, make-up artists from as far away as Japan. (I stopped counting at 50 trucks.)

I continued my stroll, first up Yawkey Way, making a stop at the official team store to pick up some souvenir ALCS championship attire (knowing full well that I was paying exhorbitant prices for the priveledge of saying that I bought it at Fenway Park). I noticed something particularly interesting about the championship banners that adorn the ball park, and I realized that I had an opportunity to witness a very unique and all too rare transformation. I'll keep my insight a secret for now, but let's just say it fits with the season (especially in New England). I might come back to this topic after the World Series is over.

Coming around to the Landsdowne side (gateway to the Green Monster), I encounted a tent city of sorts. A line of over 600 people had formed almost immediately after the Red Sox won the ALCS several days earlier. An entire micro-economy had sprung up overnight providing the most hard-core of Red Sox nation with services and goods including tent rentals, wireless internet access, and media relations (at least based on the efforts I saw some fans go through to make sure they made it onto the pre-game shows).

Even the food vendors opened up early to accomodate the hundreds of hungry fans who would not pass up an opportunity to put down $75 for an obscured view seat.

Speaking of prices, a sausage and beer have gone up just a tad from what I remember you could get them for when the sausage carts were still allowed to go up and down the streets leading to Fenway.

Soon I had to head back to the office, but already I had enjoyed more simple pleasures in the last few hours that I might have all week if I hadn't received Sheila's simple reminder.

Years from now, I'll probably going look back on this day with far more romanticism than is warranted, except for a last part of this story which I'm going to leave as a mystery, but could be called "the garage of dreams"...

Thanks, Sheila.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Getting rid of our shelves...

I was commenting on an article I saw this morning about how modern society puts blindfolds on innovation research, whether its schools that ban students from using WikiPedia, or companies that ban engineers from reading patents.

Traditional barriers, organization, ways of doing things, (etc) all have one thing in common - they provide a structure that for better or worse, limits change.

After I published my comment, I caught up on a bit of work-related (knowledge management) reading and came across an interesting video that elegantly documents the changes that are happening all around us when it comes to organization, sharing, and creating knowledge.

I'm reminded of a quote given to me by a person who used to work for our company. She would often remind me, whenever a company would espouse a way of doing business, research or anything else as a sacred cow, that:

"Sacred cows make the best burgers."

Friday, June 01, 2007

Return of the Lady Slipper

Another year since I started counting them (or at least since they were being counted for me) has ticked by. In the last seven years, I've been noticing the brief annual appearance of a somewhat rare flower on my property around the same time as my birthday. In the past, I haven't given the flower much notice, but this year, I took a moment to find out a little bit more about it. It is an orchid by the name of Cypripedium acaule or more commonly known as a Lady Slipper.

I see maybe one or two of these each year in about the same location, near a large hemlock tree. It turns out that in Nova Scotia, Illinois and Tennessee, the flower is considered endangered. It apparently is extremely difficult to cultivate, and transplanting the flower is rarely successful.

Aside from the obvious pink, shoe-like appearance of the flower petals, I wondered how the Lady Slipper got its name. With a little bit of digging, it turns out that the Lady Slipper has a very interesting story not only about itself, but about the people who tell its story. (I encourage you to follow some of the links I've provided in this article.)

In Native American (Ojibwa) folklore, Lady Slippers are said to have spawned after a brave young girl, trying to save her village from plague, walked far across difficult wintery terrain in her deer moccasins to obtain medicinal herbs from a far-away settlement. As the young girl made the long and hard journey back to her village, she lost her moccasins in the ice and snow and finished the journey barefooted, trailing her bloody footprints behind along the way. The following spring, and each spring thereafter, the moccasin-shaped Lady Slippers appear in the woods where the little girl's blood had settled in the ground, as a tiny reminders of her bravery and how she saved her village.

I have to wonder how many other stories dot the landscape around us that we know nothing about.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Year of Thinking Dangerously

I'm frequently asked what it is that I currently do for a living. For a number of years, I've been able to do something I really enjoy.

I think.

The impact of what I do can be seen in two distinct channels. The first (and most direct) is in the sales of innovation software and consulting services for my current employer. The second is in the manifestation of ideas and strategies that I help my clients develop, week after week.

I'm fortunate to be able to work with some of the best and brightest minds from many industries who are charged with trying to solve problems of great importance to their companies and customers. The immediate value of their ideas can easily run into the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. The risk of failure in the thinking process, is very real. Often times, a choice needs to be made as to whether or not the problem to be solved is one of incremental or radical innovation.

In the decision process that ensues to determine which innovation path is taken, constraints are applied that are usually relevant to economic, physical, or strategic parameters. One approach that opens the door to radical innovation, is the application of Value Engineering. Other thought methodologies that can lead to high-impact ideation include TRIZ and Disruptive Innovation.

As an innovation practitioner, I am often on the lookout for new discussions of ideas that challenge traditional thinking. I'm also on the lookout for reading material that fits my schedule of constantly running for planes, travelling to different cities, and can accommodate my very few hours of free time which is littered with frequent interruptions.

I've recently come across a book that satisfies both criteria.

"What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable" (John Brockman, Editor) is a collection of short essays collected from a question posed in 2006 from The Edge as a challenge to Third Culturists. The essence of the question was:

"What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about...that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

The respondents came from all walks of life. Physicists, chemists, cosmologists, philosophers, neurologists, mathematicians, editors, psychologists and television producers (to name a few) answered the call to respond to this question with thoughts of the unthinkable. In all, there are just over one-hundred short thought-pieces which cover a wide range of topics from science, religion, politics, and the humanities.

Many of the essays are thought-provoking. Some challenge the laws of the nature, others challenge the pillars our society is built upon. Of the several dozen or so entries I've read so far, some of the more notable "dangerous ideas" in this collection include:
  • A Political System Based On Empathy
  • Democratizing Access to the Means of Invention
  • Runaway Consumerism Explains the Fermi Paradox
  • Parental Licensure
  • When Will the Internet Become Aware of Itself
  • Everything Is Pointless

Personally, I'm finding it very enjoyable to read just one idea during a weekday when travel and client schedules permit, which means, at this rate, I should be finished with this particular book by the end of the year. If you're looking for a good distraction to keep your mind occupied this summer, I certainly recommend this book.

Which, I guess, begs the following question:

What is my most dangerous idea? (At least, as the question is defined by Mr. Brockman?)

It is that Innovation, and by extension, dangerous thinking, will never become a commoditized skill.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Gleaning wisdom from Stephen King's cocoa...

Everyone needs a place of intellectual refuge, from time to time.

At the end of most weeks, usually bracketed by air travel to centers of industry I wouldn't have thought I'd ever see once, let alone with any frequency, I look forward to spending an evening with my wife, a stack of periodicals and books, and a hot drink or two at Borders Books & Music in South Portland, Maine.

So what makes this particular location of the national big-box bookstore so special?

For starters, this Borders has a unique combination of size, layout, and selection. It has one of the largest collections of British technology and art periodicals I've seen anywhere. The music department has one of the largest and most diverse collections of opera outside of Harvard Square. It even has accurately forecast the most recent recession and is indicating the onset of another, using the 'end-cap economic indicator' theory (developed by my wife), which states that the end-caps in a book store are a good (albeit subjective) indicator of future buying trends and needs of its customers. When a majority of the high-visibility end-caps are sporting "self-help" and "start your own business" books, you should plan for harder times in the next six months.

Another important attraction that our Borders of choice has, is the staff. Being close to the University of Southern Maine (Gorham Campus), the store employs its share of students who are figuring out what directions their lives and post-retail careers will take between ringing registers, stocking shelves, and serving lattes. For the most part, these students are a microcosm of the digital native vanguard who will be moving on to take leadership roles in all aspects of society, and as such, are a really important group of people to get to know right now. The non-student population working at Borders are just as interesting. In addition to the advice on books and music they share tempered by years of experiences, they offer a most unique reflection of the outside world that passes through the store, day after day.

Getting to know some of the staff at this Borders has been a real treat. Whether its the art history student from New Jersey, the accountant who works on Fridays, the economics major who grew up down the street, or the new, first-time home owner (who is scared to death right at the moment), these are some of the most interesting people you're ever likely to meet.

One of the staff, however, is keeper of a very interesting secret, who shared it with me just the other day.

(In the interests of privacy, and perhaps even to generate a little mystery, I'm not going to list a name or give a detailed description of the staffer in question. However, for any of the Borders management that might be reading this blog posting out of concerns for customer relations, let me just say that everyone working in the South Portland store is great. In fact, you should just come right out and double everyone's pay. You have a great business model, hiring voracious readers who dump half their paycheck right back into the store within a week to satisfy their common addictions. Your margins may be wider than you realize.)

Suffice it to say, before she (ok, that narrows it down a bit) worked at this location, this staffer used to work at the Borders in Bangor, ME. It was here that she would chat with a particular customer who would come through the store on a regular basis - a local writer, none other than Stephen King.

"Stephen", she told me, (already the story is interesting - not 'Mr. King' or a personal pronoun, but 'Stephen') "kept the Bangor store going, with all the books he would buy. He'd get a huge pile of books and sit down at one of the tables to go through them. When I was working in the cafe and he came in, I'd make him cocoa - he (often) ordered cocoa - which he liked the same way each time."

Now what a thought that is. One of the most successful writers of the 20th century regularly escapes to the local bookstore to quietly unwind, get ideas, or even just grab a dependable cup of cocoa. The very person with whom he strikes up friendly chats about what he's reading, thinking, and who knows how to prepare one of his comfort foods, could be the same person you might encounter when you make a similar escape.

It's a very cool thought, and it makes one thing very clear to me:

The next time I want to go to Borders and sit in the cafe, read, get new ideas, and contemplate the mysteries of the universe, I'll know exactly how to order the cocoa.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A short time ago, at a mailbox far, far away...

I'm returning to my blog after an absence of more than a few months, partly because of a comment I received by Tom Kidd the other day. I've been travelling around the United States extensively the last six months (this week being in Temecula, CA), consulting with my company's clients to help some of the best and brightest minds in science and engineering define future technologies that will no doubt affect the lives of countless people over the coming generations.

While trying to keep up with all the articles I read from science and business publications, as well as keep up with trends in modern culture, I came across this picture, soon after it had already been identified as one of the most popular images on the Internet in less than 21 hours since it was spotted:

The stories of this photo (taken on the campus of the University of Oregon) can be found on the photographer's blog. I encourage you to follow the links and read the related articles. I find the image (and some of the details behind it) rather thought provoking, particularly as someone who grew up in an earlier generation (and not simply because I actually saw Star Wars in the theaters when it was released in 1977).

First, there's the obvious "life imitates art" angle as, clearly, the Star Wars franchise has made yet another inroad into modern popular culture. In this case, the law of unintended consequences needs to be considered, particularly on the part of the United States Postal Service for having embraced the Star Wars mythos as part of a marketing campaign. Having now seen the photograph shown above, from this day forward, I will not be able to look upon the iconic scene from the original movie (Episode IV) where Princess Leia entrusts R2D2 with the stolen Death Star plans, and think, "the Post Office has the plans...we're doomed".

Second is part of the story of the person behind the photo. The photographer, Erin Julian, gives details about herself that many people are comfortable doing in the Web 2.0 world. This by itself is not unique to younger generations. However, one comment she makes gave me greater pause.

"Seven years ago my dad introduced me to HTML code, and I have never looked back." - Erin Julian

Having grown up in a time just prior to the onset of mainstream personal computers, and having been keenly interested in the early development of web technologies in the 1990's, this again was a moment to reflect on the law of unintended consequences. Much of the electronic publishing and communications infrastructure we use today (and at the risk of sounding like an old fart, that we take for granted) was developed at a time when there were competing interests between academic, government, and commercial organizations to try and define standards of electronic document and network interoperability. At a very high-level, the competition between organizations was rooted in the constraints they were trying to overcome. Academia and research organizations were in favor of open-standards to eliminate barriers to information exchange. Government and commercial organizations resisted open-standards for different reasons (though both revolved around control of information exchange and user activity). Ultimately, what defined the "winners" including HTML (and the evolving publishing standards we have to this day) are compromises. Yet to later generations, the process that defined the compromises, and the learning that took place, is all but lost except for archival records that are used by a relatively small community compared to the masses that now utilize commoditized applications. All that remains are the tools and technologies that, for better or worse, we all unconsciously depend upon to use for everyday transactions of communication, commerce, health care...the list of applications and levels of remote control on our lives grows everyday.

It makes me wonder what advances of culture and technology that Erin and people of her generation will develop, only to come back to them in forms they never expect, another generation from now. Erin's picture, as much as it is just a really cool picture, puts an entirely new spin on the prospect of learning from the past.

The question I'm left with is, who in the future is really going to know how to retrieve the plans?