Yesterday's post ended by concluding that future optimism often overlooks social changes by focusing on technological advances. Clearly, progress is multifaceted but today I'm going to begin where we left off. The 1939 World's Fair marked the beginning of 30 years of global mood swings. From the optimistic uplift of the Fair to the despair of the WWII and Holocaust to the Cold War, the word plowed forward technologically, in large part fueled by the tension bewtween the USSR and the US. Whether fueled by fear of ideological aggression or by the surplus of the post-war era, the dawn of the space era represents one of our species' finest achievements.
From the earliest of times, space has inspired us - looking up at the stars simply inspires wonder. But rather than delve into the Space Program, I'd like to begin this with a personal story about a project I was involved in 2000 called OneCosmos. It's an odd tale that I haven't talked about for a while. Despite being having happened during the of the Dotcom Boom, (and perhaps because of it) the project shaped my life immensely.
In the summer of 2000, with the NASDAQ in freefall, I was working at a web design shop called OVEN Digital and got a call one day from a woman named Jane Ancel. Jane had been at a company called USWeb, an early web development firm that had grown rapidly and gone public making many people very rich. She explained that she had just joined the founder of USWeb at his newly funded startup which was a joint venture with Carl Sagan's widow Ann Druyan (remember yesterday's post mentioned that Sagan credited the 1939 Fair with sparking his interest in science?).
Their goal was to use the web to teach people about science by making learning as captivating and immersive as standing on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise. The company (initially code-named "Project Voyager") had raised $23 million from Softbank and Crosspoint, and consisted of little more than a founding team and a Powerpoint. I took a plane that night from New York to meet Jane and the CEO, Joe Firmage, in Palo Alto the next morning.
So began a strange and wonderful journey. Very strange. I quickly learned that Firmage had recently exited the company he started, USWeb (then valued at nearly $3B). This was the result of telling his colleagues, investors and the Silicon Valley elite that he had seen an alien. Shortly thereafter he published an online book called "The Truth" which contained an account of his conversation with said alien who had arrived at the foot of his bed carrying a glowing blue orb. During their long discussion, Joe said, the alien had asked, "Why should you be allowed to travel to our galaxy?". Upon hearing Joe's response (which was "Because I'm willing to die for it"), the blue orb sent a blast of energy into Joe's body and he awoke. If this sounds bizarre (clearly it was) - here is a Dateline NBC show about it.
To continue the story, we knew this Day One and had yet to hear the details of the work that lay ahead. You would think alarm bells would have rung, but I suspended disbelief because he was well-funded and I was intensely curious. When we met face-to-face, he described a massively ambitious project. He wished to build a 3 dimensional model of the Known Physical Universe that could be accessed from a web browser and through which, people could travel to the outer reaches of the galaxy or into the center of a carbon atom. This, he said, needed to be powered by a content management system that fed relevant published articles into the interface so that when you "traveled" to the moon, you saw the latest lunar research. You also needed to be able to chat with other users, purchase items etc. Finally (small detail) - there needed to be a fourth dimension of Time, so that you could see planets light years away as they had been long ago. In other words, Build everything that was or ever had been. That's all. We had 6 months and a budget of $10 million. We said "Yes" immediately.
Many of the finest designers, programmers, project managers and creatives in the world worked on it for OVEN as we targeted a New Year's Day 2001 launch. A partial list includes Christopher Roy, Michael Felber, Nic Roope Iain Tait, Dmitriy Kolegayev, Thorbjorn Koening and dozens of others. I've included some screen shots below. If you look closely, you'll see the product of the biggest challenge which was the information architecture - we identified 88 nodes that served as mooring points so that you could go from "Galaxy" to "Milky Way" to "Earth" to "Amphibians" - then directly to "Jupiter", back down to "Insects" and suddenly over to subsets of "Mathematics". All of the navigation needed to be viewable from the interface and the transitions needed to be smooth and make sense. (tomorrow's post on Eames ' film " Powers of Ten" will illustrate this better).
The project was fascinating in many obvious ways (inlcuding the client, who in all fairness, was eccentric though largely rational, smart and a pleasure to work with). None of the technology to make this work really existed, so we hacked things like Macromedia Director to make it work. From a "3D virtual world" perspective, neither Google Earth or Second Life existed yet. It was even early days for Wikipedia, so the idea of compressing all the information that existed into a single unified source on the web was an unsolved problem.
In the end, it was a wonderful flameout. The project failed to raise a 2nd round (no surprise in hindsight) and while we had a complete project, OneCosmos was unable to pay the final $2.7M they owed OVEN. Only now, a decade later, do I have the pespective to see it with the clarity it deserves rather than as the disasterous end-point it reached.
As I said, most of the people involved have gone on to wonderful things. As for Joe, he returned to Salt Lake City where he had grown up, and started again from scratch. By then, rumors began circulating that he was broke, having invested everything into the project. He started again as ManyOne Networks, linking up with Larry Sanger amongst others (known for having worked on early Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales). This project then became known as the Digital Universe Foundation. A few years ago I lost touch with him, but I often wonder what he's doing.
I didn't expect this to go so long, but the story was worth telling. And what began and an ode to the Futuristic wonders of the Space Age, took a detour to the story I actually needed to tell. I guess the point is the future rests on the shoulders of people like Joe. Others may laugh behind their backs, call them crazy and say their "I told you so" when they fail. But these same people also secretly wonder if folks like Joe are both brilliant and correct. Often they follow them. They envy them, for the ability to believe and bravery to follow through, despite the risks. And most of all, regardless of how things end, they often owe their greatest inspiration and finest stories to them. I know I do.
So Joe, wherever you are, thanks. Here's to the future.