Ben Hammersley’s Standup Routine

Ben Hammersley has the afternoon keynote which is, predictably, both thought provoking and a standup comedy routine. It’s titled “Eight Big Ideas of the 21st Century (And Why Blogging Isn’t One of Them)”.

I’ll skip to the punch line and mention that blogging isn’t one of the big ideas, but the conjunction of all the eight ideas. (These eight big ideas are the focus of Ben’s new book.) They are as follows:

information wants to be free
zero distance
mass amateurization
more is much more
true names
viral behavior
everything is personal
ubiquitous computing

Ben’s basic contention is that social change, in the past, has followed a sine curve – civilizations have peaked, and then collapsed. Ben believes this is because we reach the limit of what a particular technology can do. Swords aren’t going to get any more effective as killing machines – they reached their technical peak (probably with damascus steel) and won’t improve. Thoroughbred horses literally can’t get faster – their legs would break. There’s no way to improve horses by breeding horses at this point.

Ben believes that information technology is different. Computers allow us to build better computers, and there’s no obvious limit to what we’re able to do. And, hence, we’re seeing technological change making these eight big ideas possible.

At the same time, Ben sees the forces opposed to change – “the guys in suits” – are trying hard to prevent these changes because they threaten established orders. Hence, he sees eight (okay, seven) obstacles being offered to these eight big ideas:

information wants to be free -> copyright
zero distance -> borders
mass amateurization -> censorship
more is much more -> network blocking
true names -> ID cards and DBs
viral behavior -> more network blocking
everything is personal -> everything is trackable
ubiquitous computing -> no privacy

Ben believes that blogging, and other forms of content creation, signal the beginning of a period of huge change that, in retrospect, will be seen as “the first days of the Renaissance… you were the flatmate of Leonardo DaVinci”. Driving the analogy further, he argues that 1991 – when Tim Berners-Lee brought the web to life – may prove to be a more revolutionary year than 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.

It’s a funny, hopeful, incredibly optimistic talk and Ben closes by trying to get us to take some responsibility for ensuring that the good guys win over the bad guys. I’m less convinced than he that there’s nowhere to go but up, but hopeful that the ability for people to speak to a global audience through these technologies really does help change society for the better.


Talking to Ben after the talk, I told him I regretted not terming him a “pathological optimist”. He suggested it would be better if I term him a “sociopathological optimist”. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I suspect it implies violence towards the people in the world Ben thinks are holding us back, not bringing us forwards…

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