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BIF-8 as Literature

I tend to think and remember through metaphor. Whenever I meet someone or hear a talk, I form comparisons, usually to books, movies, or music. I don’t do this in every case, but enough so that I’m comfortable processing information in this way.

At BIF-8, it was books. For most of the storytellers, I associated their talks with novels and memoirs I’ve read. When I returned home from BIF and went through my notes, I thought the comparisons might make an interesting or at least atypical BIF-8 recap. If not, I hope they at least provide introductions to some good books and authors that are new to you. Caveat: I favor speculative fiction and the genre is well represented in the list.

Carne Ross = The Mirage by Matt Ruff

Carne Ross led off by BIF-8 by describing himself as a diplomat turned anarchist and expressing that he lost faith in governments to manage affairs because "the world is not a chess board - it is a Jackson Pollock painting." His story brought to mind Matt Ruff's The Mirage, a novel about an alternate 9-11 in which the United Arab States are the world's major superpower and Christian fundamentalists crash four jetliners into targets in the Middle East.

Robin Chase = On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I learned a lot about collaborative consumption in the transportation industry from Robin Chase, and was reminded of Kerouac's On the Road during her talk. I even imagined the novel’s narrator Sal Paradise using ZipCar!
Andrew Hessel = Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Andrew Hessel described himself as a genomic futurist and talked about bacterium and bioengineering. Though his talk wasn't dystopian, his story steered me toward Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, a popular young adult novel in which everyone becomes ‘pretty’ at 16.

Darell Hammond = A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Darell Hammond reminded everyone at BIF that "play is the foundation of learning - plus it's fun." Thoughts of play and childhood summoned an image in my mind of young Francie Nolan, from Betty Smith's classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

David Stull = High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

I'm pleased that music was represented at BIF-8, and though David Stull might be surprised by the comparison, his story reminded me of one of my all-time favorite novels, High Fidelity.

Jeremy Heimans = The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Purpose and scalable social change were at the heart of Jeremy Heimans’ talk at BIF, and his story inspired me to reflect on the fictional character Larry Darrell, a WWI vet in Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge who returns home from the war deeply disillusioned with materialistic Jazz Age values and sets off to find deeper meaning.

Sherry Turkle = Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Sherry Turkle focused on technology and mobile devices and the extent to which we’re less and less likely to communicate directly with each other. When she said "we make our technology, and our technology makes and shapes us," I extrapolated beyond her example of people heads down and texting to Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and one of the novel's deeper themes -- isolation.

Jeffrey Sparr = Birdy by William Wharton

During Jeffrey Sparr's inspiring BIF story, he attempted to convey what it's like to suffer from OCD, expressing that it's like what you feel when you turn around in a busy airport and notice your child is missing. Only you have the feeling all the time. His story was powerful and it took me all the way back to Birdy, a novel I read over twenty years ago about a man who retreats from the world following traumatic wartime experiences.

Marc Freedman = Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Marc Freedman focused on boomers and the need to create a new age demographic between middle and old age. He might be surprised by the possibilities author John Scalzi projects in Old Man's War, but you never know.

Lara Lee = The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Lara Lee reminded us that people generally fear change and in business there are five main fears associated with change: losing control, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of the truth, and fear of success. Huck Finn wasn’t in the BIF theater when Lara spoke, but I might have imagined him there, as these are fears he surely wrestled with when he decided to flee down the Mississippi with Jim.

Dries Buytaert = Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I knew very little about Drupal before BIF-8 but have a sense now of its creation and how much the Drupal community does to enhance and grow the platform. Kind of like the OASIS online world in Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.

Tony Hsieh = The City & The City by China MiƩville

Everyone knows that Tony Hsieh is a born entrepreneur, so it was nice to see him stretch at BIF and talk about urban revitalization. As culture is to a company, he suggested, so is community to a city. He also listed three important components to growing a city: collisions, community, and co-learning. I wonder what Tony would think of The City & The City?

Nicholas Lowinger = Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

Nicholas Lowinger literally asked BIF attendees to step into their neighbor's shoes to get a sense of what it’s like for children who regularly share shoes with an older or younger sibling. The immersion experiment reminded me of Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, a memoir in which the author disguised herself as a man in order to observe the world of men as an insider.

Valdis Krebs = Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I've previously compared Valdis Krebs to Hari Seldon, so -- and with apologies to James Gardner -- naturally his BIF-8 talk and principles of network analysis reminded me of psychohistory and Asimov's Foundation Series.

Tom Yorton = Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Tom Yorton and a few wonderful Second City comedians brought day one of BIF to a rousing close. The improv was entertaining and reminded me of Born Standing Up, the memoir by Steve Martin -- a comic who loved to innovate and who I suspect would be very much at home at BIF.

Teny Gross = Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

Teny Gross talked about his experiences in Israel, Palestine, and the U.S., and his work with the Institute of the Study & Practice of Nonviolence. His story reminded me of Forever Peace, a science fiction novel about military collaboration technology that allows elite soldiers to link and work better together. Ironically, though, as the soldiers use the software more and more, they grow closer and more empathetic, and become far less inclined to war and violence.

Susan Schuman = Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

I sense that Susan Schuman knows a thing or two about forming great teams and ensuring groups are formed to succeed and comprised of key, complementary members with distinct skills (superpowers). Though I don’t know if the fellowship that was formed to help Frodo can be considered a great or successful team, I know that if I ever need to destroy the One Ring, I’m calling Susan to help me pick the fellowship team!

Felice Frankel = Maus by Art Spiegelman

I’m not sure if Felice Frankel uses metaphor like I do, but I very much enjoyed her BIF-8 story and presentation of visual metaphors to convey complicated concepts and ideas. Though science and history are quite different, Felice Frankel’s photographs reminded me of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s powerful graphic memoir that disruptively depicts different races and ethnic groups as different animal species during the Holocaust.

James Gardner = Love at Absolute Zero by Christopher Meeks

James Gardner launched his BIF talk by asking if innovation can be predicted and then he explicitly mentioned Isaac Asimov and the Foundation Series. However, because I had already associated Hari Seldon (and the Foundation books) with Valdis Krebs, I thought of a different novel when James was speaking. Love at Absolute Zero is about a brilliant physicist who attempts to use the scientific method to predict love and find a mate.

Jeff Lieberman = One Day by David Nicholls

Jeff Lieberman slowed things down at BIF and reminded us that sometimes innovation is simply recognizing that right now is the most important time. His story reminded me of the contemporary novel, One Day, which follows two should-be-together characters through twenty years who don't quite come together in the present until it's too late.

John Donoghue = Neuromancer by William Gibson

There are many problems in the world today, but based on Braingate and the advancements in neurotech that John Donoghue talked about at BIF, it's exciting and reassuring that so many real-world breakthroughs are happening and in the works now. From neurotech to Neuromancer?

Carol Coletta = Lush Life by Richard Price

Carol Coletta knows cities and remarked that connections, distinctiveness, and agency (the ability to influence) are the three most important aspects of a city. Unexpectedly, her story reminded me of Richard Price’s Lush Life, a police procedural that shows how a single event in a city can reverberate far beyond the immediate people involved, to their families and friends, to the police working the investigation, to the nearby shopkeepers and merchants, and ultimately through the whole neighborhood and city.

Rachel Shuster = Unbowed by Wangari Maathai

Rachel Shuster’s community activism reminded me of broader environmental and communal grassroots organizations, particularly the Green Belt Movement founded by Wangari Maathai that's detailed in her memoir, Unbowed.

Simon Majumdar = The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Personally, of all the BIF-8 stories, I related the most to Simon Majumdar's BIF story and his emphasis on reinvention, serendipity, and self-investment. His story made me think of both a novel and a memoir -- Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love

Beth Coleman = Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson 

X-reality. The city as platform. Located network experiences. These aren't tomorrow's disruptions, but real-world innovations that Beth Coleman and her teams are exploring. Her line "Repeat, mutate, grow," summed up her BIF story and could have been lifted from Snow Crash.

David Macaulay = Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I'll be honest. I could barely keep up with the breathless connections and relationships that David Macaulay demonstrated during his BIF-8 story. His talk was not unlike the experience of reading Infinite Jest. Amazing!

Bill Taylor = Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

Bill Taylor focused on the human side of innovation and told of a how an automobile dealer won over his father as a customer by being kind and how Umpqua Bank is redefining banking by positioning around all five senses. The appeal of the human made me think of Big Fish, a larger-than-life story about the life of Edward Bloom.


  1. Does BIF-8 have a link?

  2. Why, yes, rantingnerd, it does. Here you go:


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