Back to the Future

brett webb
Mar 23, 2017 · 4 min read

As an American, I was raised to believe my country is exceptional in all ways. Having worked in technology longer than I’d like to admit, we tell ourselves that the US and the Bay Area, in particular, are unparalleled in terms of innovation and what allows people to be innovative.

I’ve been extremely fortunate and have made frequent business trips to different parts of Asia over the last few years. As a result of that travel, my eyes have been opened to how we’re not as exceptional as we are lead to believe. Part of this awakening is because there is massive density of human population and cultures across the continent that allows quick sampling of many viewpoints and approaches to problems. You can quickly see the difference between a country that has invested heavily in cell coverage and bandwidth, for instance, or great subway and train systems, versus a country that hasn’t.

Likewise, our current political climate is backwards looking, trying to return to greatness, instead of progressing towards greatness. Meanwhile, other countries look forward and embrace a different world than how they lived 10 years ago, let alone 70. It’s disturbing that we feel our best is behind us and we try to go back to what we know, essentially giving up our leadership position in the world.

I just got back from a week of travel — Singapore first, then Shenzhen (via Hong Kong). I’ve been to those places a number of times, the initial shock and amazement an American gets when visiting these future thinking cities has long worn off. But, one point of the trip to Shenzhen was to show the place to one of my co-workers and a friend. It was the proverbial seeing something through someone else’s eyes.

SEG Plaza Electronics Market — this is only one portion of one floor of many, filled with vendors

Shenzhen is amazing, if you haven’t been or researched from afar. It’s the epicenter of hardware manufacturing and the gateway to that world. The electronics markets are unlike any other place, a massive flea market with just about every part you’d ever need to build something electronic all the way through finished goods. It has the energy I found in San Francisco in the mid-late 90’s when the web was starting, but with it’s own version of weird. The markets are some of the most international places I’ve ever been — you hear various European languages being spoken along with Arabic, people dressed in African garb, never mind representation from all parts of Asia and the random American in the mix.

Mobike in Shenzhen

The first thing we noticed was all of these really cool looking bikes that were just sitting around everywhere. Turns out they are Mobikes. They are bikes for rent. You use a mobile app to rent them, for something like .20 cents per half-hour. When you’re done you scan the bike and leave it wherever you want. People leave them everywhere, which I can imagine American’s complaining about, but it makes them a fantastic resource for the city. You no longer have to worry about bringing the bike back to a specific location. I immediately wanted to bring this to the US and thought about all of the issues that would come up, instead of thinking of all of the benefits this type of system would bring. The Chinese seem to think of things in terms of abundance and convenience, we think of scarcity and complexity.

While marveling at all the activity happening in Shenzhen, conversation turned to the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge. It’s nothing short of a human miracle. If you take a ferry between Hong Kong and Macau you can see barges carrying dirt and creating islands out of nothing in the middle of the big bay between the cities. It’s literally jaw dropping and unbelievable. Never mind the stretch of bridge that’s connecting seemingly nothing. It’s going out to the middle of the bay. The Bay Area thinks of itself as the center of innovation and progress, but we hem and haw about building new BART stations and lines. As my colleague, Andy Pratt said, “in China they would just build a new bridge. It wouldn’t be a question. They would figure it out and make it work.” (paraphrasing)

Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge from the high speed ferry

All of this conversation revolved around recent political events in the US. The US voted to take itself back to the 1950s by electing someone preaching about going back to coal-based energy creation and walking away from modern energy cultivation. Meanwhile China is looking at 2050 and leading the way in solar .

Epilogue — I started writing this a couple of months ago and shelved it. I recently got bunnie Huang’s excellent book, Hardware Hacker, and it has me even more anxious about how the US is moving backwards and China is moving forward, more specifically in regards to IP and Open Source.

brett webb

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Creative Technologist/Lover of Fun. I help people with their (mostly digital) projects.