Saturday, July 28, 2012

communication: 1730 and 2012

Last week, in touring various sites where Benjamin Franklin lived and worked in Philadelphia, I was struck by two things (among many others).

The first is that he viewed himself throughout his life a printer. It was a unique and powerful role in 18th century America. It allowed him a special camaraderie with working class citizens and tradesmen and gave him a perspective on hard work, focus and diligence that many of his friends - statesmen, wealthy farmers, educated scientists - did not have.

He brought this approach to bear in everything he did: inventing, diplomacy, business, science. 

Second, in his day, printing allowed him to control both the content and the means of delivery. He could determine what he wanted to share whether it was a damning critique of the current political or moral environment, or his Zen-like aphorisms captured in Poor Richard's Almanac. Profound wisdom for the common folk, delivered in easily consumable snippets. 

Today, everyone can create content and easily distribute it to the world with a single click of a mouse. What power that gives us. To drive change. To foment revolution. To share knowledge. To help others in need. To connect across the globe with people in widely different roles and unique perspectives.

He used his power to  manipulate communication to his own and his colleagues advantage. His early diatribes against British rule were made using his first (of many) pseudonym Silence Dogood. He cast himself as a middle-aged woman in Boston, publishing biting commentary in his brother James' newspaper at age 16.

Lessons to be learned - as we use our various early 21st century communication tools to improve society, expand global cultural awareness, encourage tolerance, drive collaboration. 

Franklin would surely be excited at the prospect.

wandering through Benjamin Franklin's world

What a turbulent and exciting time he lived in. Such upheaval and dramatic changes. A new country being born. The Age of Enlightenment dawning. Bold new thinking about science, governance, society, education.

His many sayings and myriad aphorisms are like Lao Tzu, even Buddhist in their simplicity and density. Approaching a haiku-like delivery of wisdom and insight.

The sheer number of things he accomplished is astounding. So many brilliant ideas from one brain. And how lucky he was to also be around so many other very bright and talented people - Jefferson, Washington, Tom Paine - even his nemesis John Adams.

As our tour guide said - Ben was great at working behind the scenes and building consensus-a crucial skill and key to much of his success. 

on the trail of a genius

For several years now I have wanted to conduct a self-directed symposium on Benjamin Franklin in the city where he first came to prominence – Philadelphia. Finally it is happening. Amtrak 175 is heading down the coast and once in town, I’ll hop in a cab to a small hotel in the Old City.
I plan to share this experience here on my blog. Being sucked into the time machine…about to go back three centuries to walk where he walked and contemplate his extraordinary contributions and world view.