Shiny new uses for familiar old things

Last year I applied for a grant from a philanthropic group, the Knight Foundation, that wants to save journalism by funding the development of new technological methods. I was conflicted about applying because the project I put forward is already well supported by my employer, Microsoft. But since my proposal was to redistribute all of the grant, as a way of exploring an idea about improving the flow of information in communities, I thought it was fair to give it a shot.

My proposal advanced to the final round and was then rejected. Given my initial ambivalence I was OK with that. But the stated rationale has been bugging me ever since. The letter said:

Because there are thousands of proposals and only a few of them advance, we are able to choose only the most innovative ideas. These are new kinds of technologies or techniques, usually things we have never heard of before.

The meme woven into that paragraph has a name: Shiny New Thing syndrome. It is a plague. Technology journalism feeds it. Thought leaders, including Dave Slusher, Jeremy Zawodny, and Jeff Atwood, have denounced it.

I’m clearly biased, since all my best work involves creative remixing of ideas and technologies that are as common as dirt. But I do wonder about the harm that’s done when we equate innovation with shiny new things.

Old things are full of latent value that we’ve yet to discover and unlock. Why? It takes a long time for real understanding to sink in. In Net infrastructure, consider how long it’s taken us to grok what HTTP, REST, HTML, and JavaScript really are and can do. In education, look at the high-value uses that Sal Khan and Dan Meyer find for low-tech screencasting and blogging tools. In journalism and civic life, read what Alan Rusbridger says about Will Perrin’s compelling — and yet so last-century — use of Typepad to activate communities.

Well, I try to do my part. On my show, which is called Interviews with Innovators, I feature people who are more likely to be evolutionary repurposers than revolutionary creators. Maybe I should rename the show Shiny Old Things.

12 thoughts on “Shiny new uses for familiar old things

  1. Surely if the Knight Foundation awaits the perfect new technology to save newspapers, we better start looking for something new to line bird cages and wrap fish because they won’t be around long.
    This reminds of the quote “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. Surely the idea is already out there, why insist on a “new” one. New to who?

    If Knight Foundation thought like you do, they’d get a lot more bang for the buck.


  2. Big +1 on this: I have an unofficial rule that nothing goes into Software Carpentry unless it has been around for at least ten years. A lot of bandwagons disappear in much less time, and in my experience, it takes that long to figure out how best to use (and mix) the things that *are* worthwhile.

  3. Amen, brother! The nonprofit/social benefit sector has a big problem with “shiny-chasing” since many of our thought-leaders are influenced by the bad habits of the tech-journalism sector (and the culture at large).

    There are also a lot of perverse incentives in the independent consulting business that lead otherwise well-intentioned, smart people to become shiny-hypers. That’s another blog post entirely.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, Jon, both here and on Twitter. In general, I agree. Right now, the teachers standing at the forefront of this education thing and catching a lot of glare from the spotlight are those deploying in their classroom every new web app that goes beta. Some of those tools are great. A lot of them are overrated. Personally, I’m pretty sure it’ll be a decade or two before I get tired of converting images from the Internet to interesting experiences for my kids.

    1. And also, I hope, it’ll be decades before you get tired of reflecting on what you learn as you do these exercises, or tired of sharing your reflections as a public narrative of the work that you do.

      That aspect — the narration of work — is hugely important but still very poorly understood. In your case, by doing it, you’re not only teaching math, you’re teaching math teaching.

      This is something that any practitioner in any field can now be doing, and it’s a way to recover a key aspect of apprenticeship — observable work — that we’ve tragically lost.

  5. I’m actually a reviewer this year. There are a LOT of applications. Many of them boil down to “my small area of a city is underserved. We would like $100K to put up (long description that amounts to a blog plus youtube channel)”.

    The way the approve / deny system works (which is terrible), the ultimate sending out of replies boils down to “not innovative because of tech”, “not innovative because it’s not really advancing news”, or “didn’t demonstrate impact on a local area”. The system could use improving.

    If your project were to be proposed again, I would be happy to point out that it’s a really great idea, and the general event curation space is highly underserved.

    I’m a technologist on the review panel this year, and there is a mix every year of news/journalism people, and technologists/new media folks. I think you’d also make a great reviewer / mentor for next year. In general, I’d like to improve the process next year by doing earlier mentoring of proposals.

    In any case, thanks for posting, and be aware that there are a ton of applications, and that the tools for reviewing & feedback make it easy for some apps to slip through.

  6. Thanks for the response, Boris. As I said above, I really wasn’t looking for funding, but rather for a publicity frame for my project. I wasn’t sure the News Challenge was a valid way to accomplish that, and I’m still not.

    Just as I debated with myself whether to apply (which I did last year, BTW, not this year), I also debated with myself whether to write this post.

    But the stated definition of innovation as being “things we have never heard of before” really stuck in my craw last year, and it still does. That just seems so wrong. It’s as if Knight is saying: “Whatever will fix the news business is going to have to be news to us, because nothing on the table will work.”

    As opposed to: “How can we creatively recombine what journalism already knows how to do, and what the Net already knows how to do, in ways that will serve the business of journalism and the needs of society?”

    I’m not concerned about the fate of my proposal. But I do care about what Knight thinks can be achieved with its funding. And if it’s Shiny New Thing thinking, that worries me.

  7. It’s still funding whatever it’s used for — I’m in many cases concerned with the sustainability of a project.

    Your phrasing is 100% what the group of reviewers are looking for, and would make a great mission statement. The “scaffolding” of the application needs improvement, including the kind of boilerplate you received.

    I’ll point some of the News Challenge managers at this post — it’s excellent feedback and I thank you for posting: no debate required!

  8. i don’t mean to be old fashioned, but it is difficult to catch very large audiences unless you use something that has already been widely adopted.

    my personal favourites are the HUGE php-stylee discussion boards and forums out there that trundle on regardless of tech fashion trends

    best is 4 million posts, 93,0000 members in a city of 400,000 people where the newspaper has a circulation of about 40,000

    jon i wish someone would fund you then we can see if people would use it or if publishing calendars is just a bit too weird for them

  9. As I said above, I’m not at all sure funding is required. Proper framing of the idea surely is, though, and existing attention hubs — notably newspapers — seem like the best possible framers.

    > my personal favourites are the HUGE
    > php-stylee discussion boards and forums
    > out there that trundle on regardless of
    > tech fashion trends

    Agreed. As I’ve often noted, LibriVox has built its entire operation on that excellent foundation.

    > if publishing calendars is just a bit
    > too weird for them

    Of course people already do publish event data, on kiosks and via newspapers. Is doing it yourself, directly and electronically, weird? I guess maybe. But so is updating your status online, which is something that hundreds of millions of folks are now very happy to do.

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