Light the beacons! Nathan Myhrvold, social capital and Four Peaks

Even as we’re lead to believe that “analog” interaction faces extinction in the digital age, we still need to recognize that all the Facebook “likes” in the world in themselves, will not bring down a repressive government (Egypt, Tunisia).  You often need to take physical, non-virtual action to really get things done.

It’s why I’ll spend more time to read a handwritten “thank you” note that I’ve received — and maybe even think more happy thoughts about the sender.  We somehow still recognize value in non-effortless communication, as well as in tangible media.  Inventor and Microsoft Research pioneer Nathan Myhrvold says as much in my Media Space interview with him (ab0ve), when he declared that there’s never been a better time to print a book than now.  Myhrvold does everything on an epic scale; he has actually gone ahead and self-published a 2,400 page, six-volume book on cooking and science.

So let’s add it up: a celebrity inventor appears on a TV show to publicize his book.  Sounds very ’90’s doesn’t it?  Even more offensive to those who make a living from advocating digital lifestyles (such as myself!), the combined currency of TV + fame was just the appetizer to the main course: the hard launch of Four Peaks, through a “salon” that followed the show titled Innovation & Entrepreneurship in the Pacific Northwest: Are We Ready for the Future?. It’s explicit recognition that the hard work of building community and strong social capital necessitate a thoughtful strategy around media (analog and digital), thought leadership, and participatory events.

Here’s how we describe Four Peaks on our site:

Inspired from the success of TEDx Seattle, Four Peaks was conceived, as a meeting of the minds between Hanson Hosein (Director, UW MCDM) and Kraig Baker (Attorney and MCDM Adjunct Faculty) in an effort to solidly place the Pacific Northwest at the forefront of modern media by connecting idea generators with technology innovators. Hosein and Baker quickly convened a group of thought leaders, who share the same enthusiasm for creating a catalyzing entity for the region.

To realize this mission Four Peaks [Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Community, Entertainment] intends to:

  • Facilitate points of connection among its constituents.
  • Promote existing local ventures and research endeavors.
  • Host an annual signature event, The Four Peaks Summit.
  • Grow the community through monthly salons and smaller events.

Key to Four Peaks’ mission is the participatory nature of its events.  Once we had completed the TV interview, Myhrvold and I joined 140 participants who had watched the show on a big screen two floors up from the studio.  Although we sat in the center of the room, we were no longer the focal point of the conversation — just the match that would spark the discussion around innovation in our region.  We added to the “flames” so to speak, by positioning four “conversation beacons” in each corner — thought leaders in their own right — who each had their own microphone, and represented one of the Peaks.  Clear Channel’s Tony Benton is pictured above.  Our three other beacons were:

– Susan Sigl (Washington Technology Industry Association)

– Wanda Gregory (UW Bothell center for Serious Play)

– Trish Millines Dziko (Executive Director/CEO, Technology Access Foundation)

For the geeks among you, the “conversation beacons” metaphor was directly inspired by my absolute favorite scene from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy:

I heard a lot of positive comments on our unique salon mechanism, but we still have work to do as we move away from the knee-jerk, not-so-useful panel conversation model; Nathan was still clearly the star of the show, as you can tell from this coverage of the event.

We’ll have a chance to do so soon, with our next salon, on March 5th: Do we need another Space Needle?  Inspiring leadership in the Pacific Northwest for the next 50 years. Sign up now!


  1. Something we started with a lot when I started the program but have sort of gotten away from (at least I haven’t heard it brought up much) is the power of these digital tools to allow for self organization. Sure Facebook likes aren’t going to cause revolution – but the ability to organize a movement without having to meet face to face (or even use mail or courier) is huge. The examples we used a couple of years ago (Dean’s usage of Meetup, Obama’s ability to organize and keep messaging consistent, even the more recent Tea Party successes) seem to have been lost in the last few months as we obsess over how many tweets have @jan25 in them or how many people said they would attend the Tahir Square revolt on Facebook.
    Your comment about advocating a digital lifestyle seems odd to me thought – media isn’t a binary choice. I can surf the internet and watch broadcast news and read a book in the same day. They are all valid – no one form of communication is better (hell, I usually prefer good radio stories over just about anything else) and yet it seems like the need to profess our love of digital distribution is matched only in our desire to bash traditional media.

  2. The interview with Nathan Myhrvold was truly inspiring. I love that he pointed out that it was by taking risks and some failures that have made his successful. We all tend to be our own worst enemy and hold ourselves back because of fear of failure.

    I would have loved to hear more details about the cookbook and the story behind his work at Microsoft to his new company and creating that insane kitchen. Although I found some of the “beacons” feedback interesting…I think we all just wanted more Nathan. It is a rare opportunity to hear someone like Nathan talk about innovation who is actually doing these incredible things rather than voice of god type conversation about how we all need to be more innovative…it just becomes an overused buzz word until you hear someone like Nathan talk about it. I need to start saving for that cookbook…and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

  3. When Nathan says: “Well, it all depends on how you feel about quality” about 12 minutes into Hanson’s interview, he says it all. Nathan’s vivid description of a fabulous cheeseburger, devoid of any gratuitous dissing of Dick’s or Burgermaster, shows his absolute passion for life – whether it is photography, inventing or penguin poop.

    I almost stood and applauded when Nathan made a somewhat surprising claim that books like his $625 gem are still best published in hard copy as opposed to a growing perception that truly hip authors MUST use digital media. How refreshing!

    Whether or not it really is Nathan’s target demo that more appreciates (and feels more comfortable reading) a staggering four pounds of ink is beside the point, as I see it. Technological advances in digital media are actually a God-send to the very style of book too many believe to be antiquated.

    Wanting to view Hanson’s best interview of the series a second time before offering any opinions, I find myself less troubled by Nathan’s characterization of 19th century America as “third world” than by his decision to use a foreign company as a printer.

    Any way you slice the pie, losing ground to another nation in any avenue is not good for national security. I don’t begrudge Nathan the facts; only his apparent laissez faire attitude toward the many consequences of China’s mushrooming financial grip on our U.S. economy.

    In fact, Nathan’s contention that Chinese advances in technology are great for the whole tech industry is true. But American complacency is not just “sad” – as he puts it – it’s also beyond disconcerting.

    That said; he is absolutely correct that we must again become a nation of inventors. Clearly Mr. Myhrvold is a genius whose legacy as an off-beat Renaissance man is fantastically refreshing.

    Finally, his aforementioned reference to U.S. life in the 1800s sparked a question I’ve never heard phrased this way: Are we the greatest nation on earth because of (or despite) our devastating Civil War?

    Cosmetic footnote: Closing music jingle rivals that of Charlie Rose’s on PBS. Bravo!

  4. Nathan Myhrvold is an inventor that has my heart. What a superb idea to combine science with cooking. That’s what cooking is…a science! When you take a moment to stop and think about it; a kitchen is a truly a working lab because you try a little bit of this and that to get recipes just right. Nathan has taken a simple idea and turned it into a topic of conversation for those looking to explore something new. Nathan says his cookbook was inspired partially by science and partially by a desire to do something wild and new which is a statement that I can relate to. Our society has become so accustomed to innovation and we have also developed an inherent need to possess the latest and the greatest.
    The social trends provided the perfect “confluence of need, opportunity, and innovators to push forward” and bring new ides to the kitchen. As Theresa mentioned, we have to take risks and endure some failures in life to become successful but Nathan is clearly on the path of success.
    I had the pleasure of working with the Pacific Science center this quarter and understand the need to continue quality science education in our schools so we can continue to be a leader in the world of innovation. Let creativity continue to live in all media platforms!

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