A few very smart people can make the difference

A couple weeks from now we’re going to start serializing my 1992 book Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date. It’s the book that was the basis for my 1996 documentary TV series Triumph of the Nerds and ultimately led to this column starting on pbs.org in 1997.

What goes around comes around.

We’ll be serializing the complete 1996 paperback edition, which is 102,000 words in length, pumping the book onto the intertubes at around 2,000 words per day. In about 51 days, give or take a bit, we’ll put the entire work on the web with no ads and no subscription fee, just lots and lots of words.

Collective Thought

Our ultimate goal in doing this is to prepare yet another revised edition for 2013 but to do it in a completely new way -- with your help. We’re going to publish the book online as a blog and ask you to comment on it. Tell us what’s funny, what’s moving, what’s simply wrong, and tell us how you know that. If you were there at the time, say so. If you remember it differently than I did, say that, too. We’ll gather all those comments, I hope thousands of them, and my book buddy Parampreet Singh and I will carve the best of them into a new annotated version of the book that will not only expand the past but also extend into the future.

Those who want their submissions credited will get their wish. Those who want to remain anonymous can do that, too.

A few weeks after the serialization is over we’ll publish a hybrid ebook you can toggle back and forth between 1996 and 2013, with the 2013 version being probably twice as long or more -- at least 200,000 words.

Of course I do this so my wife can buy shoes, but it’s more than that. Accidental Empires was a seminal book that inspired a lot of people to become involved in technology and even to start their own businesses. You’d be amazed at the number of successful companies that were inspired by that book -- a book that is lost to the current generation of startup founders. If we can bring back the best parts and make them even better and more relevant to today we can inspire hundreds of more such companies -- and buy shoes.

We’ll get this going as quickly as we can but right now I’d like to throw an idea out for your consideration. There’s a chapter in the book (I’ve been re-reading it) about the seven-plus or minus-two numerals that we all can keep in our short term memories at any moment. I presented this as a figure of merit for nerds since the best programmers in those days were ones who seemed capable of keeping their code -- all of it -- in their heads at one time. If this was a good proxy for programming ability, I suggested, then we ought to have a contest to find the best short-term memories in America and see if those people could become great programmers.

Pure Genius

Lately I’ve been thinking of something very similar, though tailored a bit for the current era.

America is dropping behind in technology because our education system is fading, we’re told. Now this doesn’t happen to be true at all as I showed recently with six different studies (123456) funded mainly by the US Department of Defense. But what is true, I think, is that the rest of the world is catching up. America’s inherent technical advantage isn’t what it used to be. This is point #1.

Point #2 is that India and China, especially, are emerging as technology powerhouse nations primarily on the basis of their immense populations. If technical aptitude is equally distributed and nurtured, then countries with three times the population of the United States will nurture three times as many geniuses. The only way to compete with that is to: 1) get those foreign geniuses to move to America, or; 2) come up with a more efficient way of recruiting the best and the brightest American students to high tech -- to increase our own genius yield.

Point #3 has everything to do with the role of geniuses in building new industries: they are absolutely vital. I made this point very strongly in Accidental Empires, that the function of the genius is to make possible advances that would be otherwise impossible. What this means in the technical and ultimately economic competition among nations is that a few very smart people can make the difference. We are mistaken to some extent, then, when we worry about average test scores and average performance. Sure these things are important, but they aren’t the key to future industries and breakthroughs, since those will be made pretty much entirely by a very small number of quite non-average people.

Geek Idol

Finding and nurturing those non-average folks, then, is not only a function vital to continued American success as a world power, it is also a heck of a lot easier to do than jacking-up everyone’s SAT scores by 50 points.

Which brings me back to the idea of a test or a contest that I’ve been calling Geek Idol.

America and the world are mad for talent competitions so I think we should have one for finding the best people to become computer scientists and engineers. Let’s start a discussion right here of what such a competition would look like, what it would measure, and how it would work. Remember this will only scale properly if we also make it entertaining. It has to be fun or it won’t happen. And I’m quite determined that this should get a chance to happen.

Once the idea is fleshed out a bit, I predict that some person or organization with money to spare will emerge to fund it.

If we envision it they will come.

Reprinted with permission

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