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Connections: From Dental Floss to Whales (circa 1990-ish)
One of my favorite early television programs was James Burke's Connections. In the program he would start out with a proposition of how a simple tool or idea led to many other tools and ideas that would demonstrate surprising connections in human and environmental history. In a classic episode he showed how plastic was related to early Dutch cargo ships. (I remember that one!) The show was smart, interesting and really underscored how all ideas and objects are built upon the accretion of human knowledge, insight and innovation.
When I first understood what a URL was - meaning when I first experienced linking I immediately thought that promise of James Burke's Connections was finally at my fingertips. Through the magic of linking I could wander off through the vast store of human knowledge; sometimes following determined paths, but others through luck or fancy that would lead to new insights and appreciation for our world.
Amazing! The World Wide Web was going to be my encyclopedia, teacher and exploration portal all in one. While I did not appreciate or understand it then this was the potential to index the knowledge of the world through a commonly-understood metadata; the accretion of thousands of individual decisions about context that would help build a vast human store of experience.
However, the web has never really lived up to this promise. The simple fact is that we are too interested in creating our own content to really think about the middle bits that link it all together. In large measure we have ceded these connections to the indexing of spider-bots and search algorithms, which I think make the world a little flatter, a little more banal than it really is or could be. However, projects like Wikipedia and Mahalo, among others keep the promise alive.
Tom Clancy & I Are Best Friends (circa 1992-ish)
My now wife, Mary and I had just moved into our first apartment together,
a very sweet loft overlooking the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. We signed up for AOL together and distinctly remember how cool it was to hear that "You've Got Mail" sound. (That was some pure marketing genius...perhaps it was just a functional prompt to check out your email account, but it was pretty cool to know that someone else, somewhere actually contacted you over the Internet...it was validating and special. This was relatively early commercial email era, so it was exciting to hear that Hayes modem crank up, get connected and know that you were CONNECTED.)
I distinctly remember going onto AOL's Writer's Workshop discussion board (or something like that) and seeing a bunch of people online asking and answering questions. They were not very "writer-ly" questions or answers, mainly about how now to get screwed by publishers, who actually would take new authors, etc. However, there was this name there - Tom Clancy - who was very much participating in the conversation. I checked out his profile, and it was THEY (or at the time THEY, versus today "they") Tom Clancy. Wow, me and Tom Clancy connected across the miles of wire together. We were best friends for that 5 minutes.
This was a seminal moment because there I was, sitting in my loft in the middle of Philadelphia listening in to real writers talking about their everyday lives, and there in the middle of it was a really famous, successful writer...sitting around the virtual fire, chewing the fat just like everybody else. The moment taught me about the power of connection and the possibility of civic conversation. And the power that the Internet can bring all of the knowledge and relationships on the network into your own little home.
You Call That a Knife? (circa 1996-ish)
At this point I was working for The Enterprise Foundation in providing technical assistance, funding and training for community development folks around the state of Oregon. My work took me all over that beautiful state, including the then up-and-coming town of Bend (which is now, what I hear, down-and-out for the moment). At the time, travelling outside of the city limits was like stepping back 50-60 years in Oregon's rural past. This is where the real community development work was occurring. (My definition of a rural Oregon town: it had to have a Napa Auto Parts store, an "antique" shop and a chiropractor...it was a pattern that held up.)
Just north of Bend is the small town of Redmond, Oregon. And in Redmond they had an antiques shop, of course. I was working on a Main Street program that was helping infuse money, training and technical assistance to help revitalize Main Streets, as well as build more mixed use, mixed income housing. There I heard my first story of e-commerce.
In the middle of this dusty old town the antiques dealer had acquired three WWII-era, I believe German, knives. The antique dealer sold one to someone in the town for $20. Then, in an improbable leap of faith, put the other two up for sale on the still very young eBay. After a week the dealer had sold and shipped both of the two remaining knives for something like $400 each.
Bam! Here I was trying desperately trying to help Main Street businesses to improve their operations and customer presentations to attract new customers from Bend and those going down Route 97 on their way to Bend. But in the midst of this dusty town this small antiques dealer, with a simple modem, could reach out and find the customer to maximize the value to themselves and their customers. That moment taught me that the Internet was going to be a powerful force for economic development. (And as a final note, I, frankly, have not seen a very enlightened state, city or economic district policy that goes beyond just simply providing for more robust access...our economic policies need to stretch beyond this basic tier of service.)
The Internet Ham (circa 1997-ish)
The final piece is something as simple as fulfilling my craving for Virginia Ham. (The saltier the better...yummm.) The direct experience from the "Redmond Knife" led me to think about reversing the flow and allowing me to buy what I want to buy when I want it. It was nearing Christmas and I really wanted to relive my Pennsylvania ham glory days, so I jumped on the web and found Edward's Virginia Ham. It was my first online purchase - the Internet Ham.
This seminal moment was really about how the Internet could bring the world to you home. I could reach across the country into a small town outside of Smithfield, VA and bring me home some ham. Amazon, eBay and all of the other Internet retailers should be thanking the ham for my patronage. (And as you can see from the picture, when I moved here from Portland, one of my first trips was the pilgrimage to the birthplace of my yearly Internet ham.