Writer and entrepreneur Byron Reese — author of Infinite Progress — will give the keynote address at the 2016 Ben Franklin iXchange, taking place at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 17 at Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem.
The event will feature two executive networking sessions, a talk by Reese, and the presentation of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern PA‘s annual Innovation Awards, which recognize outstanding individual and company achievement in business and technology.
Keystone Edge chatted with Reese about his writing process, the onward march of human progress and why nobody should be scared of the next big technological evolution.
Keystone Edge: Have you ever spent time in the Lehigh Valley?
Byron Reese: No. I have not.
When you’re going to speak in an area you’re not as familiar with, do you try to tailor the speech? Or do you feel like, in this day and age, we’re in a national conversation?
No. I don’t ever give the same talk twice. I don’t have the patience for it. I’m very interested in who I’m speaking to, why they’re there, what they care about, and what’s top-most on their minds. No two talks are even remotely similar.
So you like to make a lot of extra work for yourself.
I’m afraid so! The thing is that I’m a writer, so it comes very naturally.
I was just talking to a group of people who ship things around the country, and obviously that’s got to be a talk with a lot about driverless vehicles, drones for delivering, etc. I just get excited thinking I get to learn something new.
But there are themes I talk about over and over: the power of technology to do good in the world and how we as a species are making progress. [Of course], all of these things are double-edged. Somebody invented metallurgy. One person said, “Great, I can make a plow.” And another person said, “Great, I can make a sword.” Technology is like that, but it always nets out to being good.
But there can also be a lot of anxiety around new technology.
Technology has actually changed us in ways that would have been unsettling to ancients. Ancients had much better memories. Back 2000 years ago, if you wanted to invent something, you had to remember it. There were no books. So you had a Roman general who knew the names of all 20,000 of his troops.
Augustin wrote an autobiography 1500 or 1600 years ago where he talks about the first time he ever saw someone reading to themselves. Up until that point in history, people always read out loud. In an oral society, that’s how you learned something — you heard it.
If you had told people back then, “In the future, words are going to come off a page and go through your eye onto your brain, and you’re going to know something you never heard before,” that would have been very creepy to them. You get down the road and you look back and you couldn’t imagine it any other way.
My two-year-old nephew is obsessed with videos and images of himself on the iPad. We’re always wondering how it’s going to affect his memory going forward. He’s going to have all of these visual memories, but are they going to be stored on devices rather than his brain?
It will definitely have an effect on us. But I think the way to keep it all in perspective is to realize that Shakespeare died 400 years ago and yet A-listers still make movies based on his plays. Even though our lives are radically different, we still know those people. We still get those stories. We’re still human in exactly the same way that those people were human. In 100 years, people will still be reading Shakespeare. I think that part of us never changes.
So how does this apply to business? And to being someone who can see trends that are coming?
Well that’s the topic of the talk, isn’t it?
Because technology behaves in this certain way — Moore’s law, where the power of technology doubles and then it doubles and then it doubles — we should expect ever-increasing change that’s faster than our traditional development cycles for products. We’re minting new billionaires faster than ever. An idea now, a thing, can make a billion dollars worth of value. Technology is that much better.
This isn’t really a frightening thing. It’s a very level playing field. Everything is changing quickly for everyone. It’s not about getting caught up in the technology and what it is able to do, but returning back to building things that people don’t even know they want. But the minute they see it, they have to have it.
Think about every problem that people have that they have just grown used to as being part of life. You could start at the top of that list: Why do I have to pump gasoline? Why do I have to go to the grocery story? Why do I have to stand in line at the DMV? Is it possible for technology to solve this problem. And if so, what would that look like? All of a sudden you’re way ahead of the technology — you’re not running and chasing it.
You’re in the media sector. Things have changed drastically in the industry over the last couple decades. How are people going to figure out how to make money from this again?
What we see is that when you give people four channels on TV, they watch TV. When you give them 400, they watch more TV. With books, when you make books cheap, they buy books. You make a Kindle and they read 30 percent more.
So what we have seen is that every time we make it easier to consume media, people do. There doesn’t necessarily seem to be an upper limit to that. I don’t know if you could even say 24 hours, because people consume multiple streams of media concurrently now. My daughter listens to audiobooks while she reads the news — and knits at the same time — which I don’t fully understand.
The paradox is that the percent of GDP that is spent on advertising has remained flat for decades. So what that implies is that there is now more media dividing up the same pie. And so that will be difficult. The amount of media produced is growing faster than the number of people coming online. And that, too, should give companies pause.
Anything that you’ve learned about the Lehigh Valley as you prepare to visit?
I was given a list of all of the companies that [Ben Franklin Technology Partners of NEPA] has backed. I was really intrigued by the diversity of the companies — they weren’t all energy or communication or solar. I’m probably going to go deeper in that. I like anecdotal information. I want to go around to the websites of all these companies, see what they’re doing and who’s running them, and what their ambitions are.
Early registration to the Ben Franklin iXchange costs $75; it rises to $95 after April 30. Hot hors d’oeuvres and dessert will be served; a cash bar will be available. Register on-line here or contact the Ben Franklin Technology Partners at 610-758-5200 or iXchange@nep.benfranklin.org.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.