The Big Picture

One of my favorite books is an autobiography of Thomas Edison published around 1934 very near the end of his life.  In it, the author relates the observation that the phonograph was perhaps Edison’s most radical invention.  You see, at the time, no one even thought it was possible to record people’s voices.  The idea of hearing Lincoln’s voice is lost forever to us and his giving the Gettysburg Address.  But we have not lost Neil Armstrong’s declaration upon first stepping onto the moon.

The author of the biography notes that when Edison had it working he took it to the Whitehouse to see the President of the USA and the entire group stayed up nearly all night trying it out!!  You see in that first invention Edison had recording and playback in the same machine.  To all assembled it was beyond their imagination.

That wow factor is often lost in today’s fast inventive world.  But it is still all around us if we know how to look for it.  Every once in a while we hear a story or an idea and if we can Grok it sufficiently it can be life changing.  Let me tell you one that still has room for inventiveness.  It is one of my most told stories.

In 1994 or 1995 at the Optical Fiber Conference (before optics was so popular or crashed), the keynote address of the conference was given by Bran Ferren who at the time was EVP of Disney’s Imagineering Group.  This is the group that helped design the theme parks and was central to much of their creative efforts.

Ferren started off the keynote talk by asking a question – “This Internet thing, its a big deal right?  But is it a big deal like the fax machine or like fire?  You see the fax machine nearly put FedEx out of business because it stopped the sending of overnight mail.  So it had global impact.  But well, fire, it is one of the big inventions of all time.”

Well there were about 4000 of us there and there were only about 5-10 of us that did not go with Fax machine.  I am happy to tell you I was one who voted for fire.  And out of that group the company I founded ended up the largest supplier of fiber optic gear in the world.  But at that time we were so small as to be insignificant.  We did not even have a booth in the exhibit hall.

Back to Bran Ferren and his “fire” connection – he went on to say, “Its fire because human beings are the only story telling creature and this will fundamentally change the way we tell each other stories.”  It hit me like nothing I had ever heard.  That is why when I tell you this story here now it is as clear to me as it was then.

Can you think of a few billion dollar ways he was right?

Here is my short list –

  • Google – where we re-search for what we don’t know or would like to know more
  • Facebook – how do families and friends tell each other stories?  post a photo, write a caption and we all tell the micro stories of our lives.  I posted a photo with caption of a giant spider I killed in my apartment in Singapore yesterday … there were 10 comments from my children, high school friends and business associated.
  • Twitter – obviously but in different ways from Facebook, right?
  • Blogs – I remember when David Winer predicted that Blogs would supplant newspapers.  He was scoffed totally.  But today, most major newspapers in the USA are in deep financial trouble because people have internet based Blog ways to get their news more efficiently, lower cost and faster.
  • iTunes – music is a way we share stories … just listen to Kathy Mattea, Harry Chapin or even the Beatles but in 1994 no one was listening to Bran and using his insight to go invent iTunes
  • YouTube – a site where we share our videos no matter how ridiculous

There are so many done but probably still many more to go.  Are you listening yet?

PS … here is a fun video on “The Big Picture”

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Investing, Personal Stories, Singapore Incubator, Spiritual Threads, StartUp Ideas