“If you would not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten
either write things worth reading
or do things worth the writing.”
- Ben Franklin
It’s Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday, and I can’t think of a better way to spend the big day than hanging out at the Berkman Center. I don’t think John Palfrey had planned the day as a celebration of the polymathic founding father, but the inventiveness my colleages and the extended Berkman community display on any given Tuesday is an appropriate tribute to Franklin’s genius.
If Franklin were famous only for the things he invented, that would be enough to guarantee him a place in history books. Bifocals, the lighting rod, the odometer, a massively improved wood stove would have been the centerpieces of a patent portfolio to make most inventors jealous. But Ben’s genius extended to inventing institutions: the lending library, the fire department, the political cartoon, the US postal service, daylight savings time. More than one of the Berkman fellows crowd wanted to give Ben credit as the first blogger – that one’s certainly arguable, but he probably does get credit for that most American of literary genres, the self-help book.
(Pekka Himanen pins the blame on ol’ Ben for the American culture of self-improvement and perpetual guilt. I think it’s a bum rap. Read his autobiography and it’s pretty clear that he was aware of the irony that he, a highly flawed individual, was dispensing advice. He was certainly aware of the potential for self-deception – in the fourth chapter of his autobiography, recounting how he talked himself out of vegetarianism, he notes, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” It’s hard to take anything literally from a man who’s written that statement…)
It would be hard to be as widely creative as Franklin in this day and age, especially in a nation with centuries of history. (Perhaps, in newly founded nations like East Timor or Somaliland, there are Franklinesque figures responsible for the first iterations of diverse institutions.) In an age where subject expertise is highly valued, and curiosity about various subjects is dismissed as dilletantism, it’s hard to imagine a public figure with such wide-ranging interests and pursuits. Specifically, it’s rare to find people who are inventors both of social institutions and of techological things.
And this is where I find my time in Cambridge endlessly fascinating. I was thinking about Ben as I watched Steve Garfield interview Dan Bricklin. Bricklin was the co-inventor of Visicalc, the first spreadsheet application, a piece of software which brought about business computing as we know it. His newest invention is wikiCalc, a wiki spreadsheet. Documents created with wikiCalc look like formatted spreadsheets, but are editable like wiki pages.
(Geek stuff – the software’s currently alpha, written in Perl – Dan’s designed it to run in modPerl, but it runs reasonably well in interpreted Perl. It uses tons of AJAX for the editing functions and saves the edited cells to a remote server, or a server running on the client machine. It currently keeps history files of the full sheet, but future plans include cell-by-cell histories. It currently knows how to sum cells, and doesn’t have a lot of other Excel-type functions, but hey, it’s released under GPL in Perl, so write your own functions if you’d like. Download info for wikiCalc 0.2 here…)
Armed with a video camera and a mic emblasoned with the logo of video blog Rocketboom, Steve Garfield followed Bricklin through a demo, contextualizing the significance of a wiki spreadsheet for his video podcast audience. I realized that I was watching Garfield help invent citizen video journalism while Bricklin invents wiki spreadsheets. Following on the heels of a Dan Gillmor talk about the future of citizen journalism, a meeting with World Bank executives about low-cost computers for the developing world and a chance encounter with one of the figures behind world music advocates Calabash Music, and it’s easy to believe that Ben’s inventiveness is alive and well, though perhaps a bit more diffuse than in ages past.
As you may have guessed, I have a special fondness for Franklin. One of my favorite childhood books was “Ben and Me”, a wonderful book by Ben Lawson, written from the perspective of the extraordinarily intelligent mouse which lived in Franklin’s fur cap and gave Franklin most of his key insights. A few years ago, friends pointed out a certain visual similarity between me and the great man – I took this as code for “you’re getting increasingly fat and bald, Zuckerman.” Complaining to a few friends about this unfortunate resemblance, they pointed out that, of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin had more joie de vivre than the rest combined.
Armed with that insight and my inherent Franklinophilia, I’ve decided to embrace any visual resemblance that might accidently occur, going as far as dressing in my best Franklin gear for a photo session with friend Daniel Beck. Ah, if only it were this easy to imitate the great man’s genius.
Happy 300th, Ben. And thanks, Berkman, for reminding me that there’s still ever so much to invent.
Steve Garfield’s always got his video camera on and offers footage of me explaining this post to my Berkman colleagues…