I saw a piece of the future a week ago in Berlin. It looked a lot like Vikas Narula.
In this shot (right), Vikas is beating his cell phone on a table to get it to function properly. “Piece of s***,” he is saying. Bang.
I personally don’t fix my cell phone like that. I’d be scared of breaking it even more. But Vikas isn’t scared because anything that breaks, he can fix, rebuild, or easily replace. He’s a 32-year-old Afghani who moved to Germany when he was 8. He codes in an open-source programming language called Ruby. He can get well-paid work anywhere in the world.
Now, I don't want to go all happy-talk on you, about how idealistic young hackers are going to save us all. I haven't seen an app yet that can refreeze the polar icecap, dissolve corporate greed, solve the madness that is Syria, or [fill in your own nightmare here].
But I am a big believer in the power of generational cohorts. Developed by the historians Michael Strauss and Neal Howe, this is the idea that people born at the same time share similar social influences from birth and, over time, express this historical consanguinity in powerful cultural, economic, and political ways.
There are various cohorts within any generation. In Berlin, at Campus Party's powerful debut in the non-Spanish-speaking world, a particular cohort was in action, and it was flat-out amazing to observe.
I've written about Campus Party before; it has swept the Ibero-world for a dozen years, assembling 10,000 young geeks at a time at events that are something like Burning Man, South by Southwest, Hackathons, and Spring Break combined. Its genius is an understanding of the young geek zeitgeist. The organization has forged a community of “Campuseros” that now numbers 224,000.
Campus Party Europe was the organization’s attempt to show that it wasn't just a Spanish thing. Seven thousand young geeks came together at Berlin Templehof Airport, most of them camping there for the week. Telefonica and Neelie Kroes, vice chair of the European Commission and leader of its Digital Agenda program, were the main sponsors.
When the dust cleared, it worked. No one can call it a Spanish thing anymore. It's a world thing.
It’s also a tribal thing. Within this generational cohort, there is a large tribe of Vikases. They are attached to being with each other and to applying their skills together. They don’t spend a lot of time on the “big picture” stuff. When I spoke with Vikas, I kept trying (in my old-fashioned way) to get him to tell me about the particular hack he was working on—something called “SocialQuest.” What would it do?
He kept answering me by talking about the process. “Twenty people working … sitting concentrating, working, coding together … everyone won each other's hearts … they want to work with each other … they don't have any boundaries.”
And then he said something that I think is truly important: “Sharing is everything. We share because we need to share.”
There is a smaller but significant tribe that looks like Ivo Betke, Richard Bretzger, and Marc Schmieder (see below).
These are young Berlin guys, grad students, and entrepreneurs who designed the concept of SocialQuest over two years and who convened the Vikas tribe at Campus Party to hack a minimum viable product (MVP) for the idea: “We imagine a city as an organism of creative and networked individuals who engage together to create a better place for all of them,” said Ivo. “Therefore we have developed a web platform and mobile app that enables you to take action in the real world by revealing problems and goals.”
Basically, SocialQuest provides a way for young hackers (both tech hackers and life hackers) to drop into projects anywhere in the world, virtually and/or in person, add their skills, make friends, have fun, and feel part of their generational cohort.
At Campus Party in Berlin, Richie, Marc, and Ivo hooked up with hackers from eight countries and hacked pretty much nonstop for three days. As Richy put it, “People from over nine different countries spoke one language: the language of working on a common goal to build something better! We built a software prototype without caring much about traditional threads of development such as money, stakeholders, organization, decision-making structures, infrastructure, and so on. We just did it! “
There’s another tribe—it’s smaller, so maybe a “tribelet.” This group includes people like Lucky Gunasekara (see below).
Born in Sri Lanka, schooled at Cornell and Stanford, Fullbright scholar in Japan, Lucky is an alpha geek, a data specialist who is now working with Jeffrey Sachs at Earth Institute after a stint with virologist Nathan Wolfe. Before that, he was a co-founder of Frontline SMS Medic. His aspiration is to build a web-based “development bank,” where funders and fund recipients can transact on a fully transparent platform at the investment levels of both Kiva and the World Bank.
I think of Lucky as straddling the “big picture” concerns of the World Bank (and UN) on the one hand, and Vikas’ joy in sharing on the other. In between are the SocialQuest guys, who Lucky describes this way: “…visionary and socially savvy individuals who can provide the tribes with a common goal. They're like a binding substance—like eggs and milk that can pull flour together into a dough.”
Lucky described Campuseros (and himself) as “coming from many homelands, speaking several languages, technologically literate from an early age, looking and living more like the denizens of a William Gibson or PK Dick version of Macau or Singapore melting pot. All of these things mean we like flexible and adaptive networks—transglobal social communes (physical or digital) where we can interact with one another in a common language: tech. We believe in the transformative power of technology.”
He continued: “I think the really distinct generational dynamic is that we don't like brittle institutional bureaucracies, your lumbering dinosaurs (to quote Charles Armstrong), or your usual top-down structures, where you're told to do something because ‘I told you so, and this how things are done.’ Approaches need to not trigger a ‘that's stupid’ response.”
So how does the world not trigger a “that’s stupid” response from this tribe? A lot depends on getting that answer right.