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.