A New Manifesto for the Tech Industry

When the Cluetrain Manifesto came out in 1999, I was 30. I had already been living the dream for three years as CEO of the first social media website for teenage girls, SmartGirl (1996–2015 RIP) and one of the early female CEOs of the dot com boom. I met Cluetrainers Chris Locke, David Weinberger and Doc Searls (these guys are in their late 60’s now; at the time, they were around 50) at Jerry Michalski’s famous Retreat.

The concept of explaining to old-guard, establishment people what exactly it meant to shift from a broadcast model to a many-to-many communication platform had infused nearly every conversation I had with friends, funders, and corporate clients. The Cluetrain shift turned multiple industries on their heads, rolling through the tech industry, the retail industry, the music industry, and the media industry like a tsunami, with some industries yet to feel the full force of the wave even today.

The only people who didn’t need to have it explained to them were the “Generation Y” visitors to my website (they’d be 28–34 now). For them, communicating with each other online was intuitive and fun. It was also, perhaps unbeknownst to them, a learning experience. While they were anonymously filling out online surveys, posting reviews, uploading poems and love letters, and conversing in threaded discussion groups about vegetarianism or religion, they were learning to navigate a system that would become the status quo for everyone — including baby boomers and Gen Xers who didn’t grow up with it.

Considering that when I was going to VCs for funding in 1996 I was repeatedly told that “girls don’t use the Internet”, this new skill set was a big deal for my users. I was quoted in Wired Magazine in 1997 about a problem that still exists, perhaps even worse now than almost 20 years ago: computer programming is wrongly lumped in with the math and science curriculum during the educational process and beyond. Many bright people think math is just plain boring; many sharp programmers think that without math, people can’t be part of the programming world.

That needlessly limits the creative capacity of the tech industry and excludes many capable, passionate people whose talents in innovation and rejuvenation are sorely needed. Computer literacy is more rightfully a part of any subject. Keeping it in a silo is short-sighted and exclusionary. To be a PhD computer scientist, yes, of course, math is needed. But to be a coder, to build great interfaces? To make specifications and build consumer applications? I don’t think so.

In the intervening years since the first dot com boom, I’ve worked with many tech startups and gotten immersed in a new world of tech art. The conviction I’ve had for over 20 years now has only grown stronger. There’s a better way to make technology. You don’t do it by limiting the field to the quants and the geeks (sorry guys). You do it by introducing the power of culture and design to computer programmers so they can exercise and stretch their creative muscles, and by introducing the wide world of tech to the creatives. You do it by reuniting the “left brain” and “right brain” tasks and people that have been falsely dichotomized by popular consensus. And as you do this, you will see the group you work with becoming coed and multicultural without forcing it.

Logic and creativity are not two separate entities that never meet. They work best as a team. There’s a lot of bullshit out there like “there are art people and there are engineers and they will never get each other”. All that has to stop. It’s so bad for the world. Some engineers today don’t have the slightest notion of design or usability. On the other hand, some artists can’t make change for a dollar. This is not OK. Our educational system has created this alienation, to the extent that it exists. We need to end all that and start a new culture where creativity and engineering happen in the same place and artists learn to use technology in service of their passions.

The musicians, the artists, the designers, the performers, the sculptors, the dance teachers — the passionate people who love technology the moment they discover that it can enable their craft — are essential to creating good technology. The well-known story of Steve Job’s calligraphy class at Reed College determining Apple’s orientation as a company with beautiful design may just be a pop-culture anecdote. But the concept has resulted in companies who have gotten wind of the “design thinking” movement, like IBM, making new hiring plans to bring 1,000 designers on board. Lots of companies now have labs to give their programmers time to play in the sandbox. Creative programmer jobs aren’t so easy to send overseas; we need to cultivate this talent here at home.

I believe in this future so strongly that I started the inaugural Creative Tech Week, which will take place April 29-May 8 2016 in New York City. It’s an industry-wide convention that features almost a dozen conferences, lots of performances, hundreds of talks, and at least 50 art installations, all discussing creative technology as it is used in ad agencies, art, education, tech companies, and in an interdisciplinary way. Separating Artistic, Commercial and Educational Creative Technology into different industries is a false construct. The top ideas from those three fields should be integrated annually in one (in-person) networking event so artists and teachers can meet businesspeople and agency creatives for cross-pollination and idea gathering. So we’re building this.

Because high-cost networking events like South by Southwest and TED exclude valuable insights along with the people who can’t participate, we need to do something here, where 8.5 million people live. Cannes, Austin, and Miami Beach vacuum talent and dollars out of NYC every year for a week at a time to show off a whole lot of NYC-born and bred Creative Technology at their respective conferences. I figured there was no reason not to show it off right here at home. New York City is the natural center for creativity, culture, the arts and advertising in the USA. Our tech industry is strong; our media, publishing, advertising, and education industries are global; and our arts and culture is far and away the best. New York knows how to combine these different elements like nobody else. The bulk of the greatest projects come from here anyhow. So why are the big Creative Technology networking gatherings in other cities?

Creative Tech Week isn’t just about introducing more creativity to the tech industry; it’s also developing a new and diverse generation of talent and making the tech economy more inclusive for everyone. It’s clear to me, after seeing so many women and people of color come to technology through their artistic passions, that when you connect technology to the creative acts people love, diversity follows naturally (conversely, I’ve seen white male engineers discover art, and it’s a beautiful thing).

While studying programming for programming’s sake might be a chore, learning about computers through something like Tahir Hemphill’s Rap Research Lab, Google’s Made With Code project, or Sunset Spark’s Robot Monster Party makes it organically fun. Right now elected officials are clamoring to defund art classes to focus more on science, math and engineering. When computer programming and engineering is part of art and language class? That’s when we’ll develop our next generation of engineers.

This way of teaching computing will also help lead us out of an economy where people are throwing rocks at the Google bus. It’s organically inclusive and gives everyone a chance to participate. Right now people don’t have a full grasp of what kind of wonderful things can be made with programming and how on earth they could participate in that kind of creation process. And in math class, they do one problem set after another for 20 years, learning, still, nothing about the fact that the work of someone like Leo Villareal or Adrien Segal originates with computers.

The art establishment has been slow at recognizing the tech art movement as well, which hasn’t helped attract new funding from tech-industry elite. Guess what, old-guard curators! The new contemporary art is not going to be painting or collage. It will be digitally originated and/or electronics-driven. Museums are too tightly gated and often don’t foster the grass-roots artist community or culture. Museum buildings and permanent galleries are a great expense to maintain, and the volume of space is not scalable. While I love a great museum or gallery visit, it’s already true that large pop-up gatherings like Creative Tech Week, Miami Art Week/Art Basel and Burning Man have taken over the art industry as the best place to see new art first. We put a curatorial lens on the work we choose so it’s not completely a free-for all, but it is more open-source.

Finally — I believe we are DONE with the 14–20th century system of white men in charge and everyone else kowtowing to them. Every professional gathering should be mixed skin colors and mixed genders, period. If it isn’t, the organizers have made a curatorial mistake and should be taken to task by their attendees for not delivering the promised insights and takeaways. Neglecting the contributions of women and people of color in tech has been exclusionary to the point of being apartheid (here I’m redefining this as segregation based purely on race and gender, regardless of capacity or contribution).

In sum, there’s another huge tsunami that today’s old guard doesn’t see coming. To achieve its true potential, tech needs to understand art, design, and creativity. It needs to draw talent from women and people of color. It needs to get out of the math ghetto and have computer programming taught in art class, in language class, in dance class. It needs to find ways to bring in people from across economic backgrounds if it doesn’t want to be attacked by mobs of hungry and resentful people left out of the boom.

It’s time for a new manifesto for the tech industry. Join me!