Ryanboudinotisahack.com, this rinky-dink blog with a joke name that I started a few months ago, is now headquartered in a state-of-the-art innovation center and startup incubator. I have a desk, a phone, a rolling file cabinet, and an ergonomic chair. About twenty feet to my right is a space that will soon become a VR demo/work space tricked out with gear like the HTC Vive. My desk is situated smack in the middle of the floor, and around me are people working on cinematic virtual reality, physical therapy applications, first person shooter games, VR audio, and something involving virtual cadavers. There’s very much a freshman orientation vibe as everyone checks out the facility, which includes conference rooms and an event space with a view of Mount Rainier. I’m trying to orient my blown mind to this environment.
I’ve been reading The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. Bell Labs was where the transistor, arguably the most important technological innovation of the twentieth century, was invented in the 1940s. The physical layout of the labs was deliberately designed to facilitate random connections and meetings, the idea being that the more the scientists and engineers bumped into each other, the more they’d exchange knowledge and spark creative solutions to problems. Eccentricity was tolerated, but hoarding credit for innovations wasn’t.
I’m coming to understand that innovations happen where physical spaces encourage exchange, and where the people inhabiting those spaces are generous with their knowledge. I’ve experienced that kind of environment before, at Amazon.com in the late nineties, when I worked as a Customer Service Rep in a windowless floor of a building in downtown Seattle. Back then the entirety of Amazon’s Customer Service department was a couple hundred young freaks like me. And by freaks, I mean that Jeff Bezos told the staffing agency “give me your freaks” when filling out his CS department. The idea was to populate the department with as diverse an array of people as possible.
I have a complicated relationship with Amazon, but I look back on those two years fondly. Answering phones and email for what was then an online bookstore while I pursued my MFA degree taught me so much. I worked alongside scientists with Phds and people who’d recently quit being bike messengers. There was also a culture of asking questions–lots and lots of questions. If you’d been there for two weeks longer than the person in the cubicle next to you, it was understood that you were responsible for answering their questions. After the month-long training on how to use the UNIX-based customer database and its tools, you were pretty much thrown onto the floor and expected to figure out what more you needed to know.
It’s literally the first day this work space is open, and its culture will evolve according to the personalities and passions that inhabit this place. It’s the dawn of a new medium, and nobody here is an expert at anything they’re doing; we’re all figuring this out as we go. I anticipate that simply having a place to congregate and work side by side will accelerate everybody’s learning process. I’ve met some of my neighbors, all of whom have been drawn by a sense of possibility to this embryonic technology. Important, ground-breaking things are going to happen here. I can feel it.