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Hackers Are the Future

If you want to spot the next big trend, keep an eye on the F.
September 15, 2008

“Hackers are a great predictor of the future,” Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, said last week at Ignite 4 in Boston. By this, O’Reilly means those who enjoy experimenting with, or “hacking,” software and hardware, rather than computer criminals. “I was at the Tech Crunch 50 on Tuesday,” O’Reilly said, “and I thought, ‘Startups aren’t where it’s at.’” Instead, he said, the most important projects are being developed by people who are working on new technologies for the sheer enjoyment of it.

O’Reilly gave a keynote at the Hooley House in downtown Boston; his address was sandwiched between two sets of five-minute talks on subjects ranging from simulating natural life to providing computing power for terabytes of data produced by major telescopes. He backed up his statement by pointing to a few examples: programmers who remixed data from different websites well before Web companies started offering similar applications and services, and the community wireless networks created long before Wi-Fi was a common feature in coffee shops and homes.

As for current activities that might make the mainstream in the future, O’Reilly’s money is on hardware hacking and collective intelligence. He pointed to projects like the Quake Catcher Network, which uses standard laptop sensors to detect earthquakes. “This is a very different future in which all of these applications are being driven by sensors,” O’Reilly said. “We are moving out of the world in which people typing on keyboards will drive collective intelligence applications.”

The talk finished with a call to apply such technologies to the more serious problems facing the world, such as those presented by climate change. To emphasize his point, he quoted Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Man Watching,” which concludes, “Winning does not tempt that man. / This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, / by constantly greater beings.”

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