For decades, there has been a push and pull of technology changing our media consumption habits, while the companies and creators that adopt (or don’t adopt) that technology influence what goes mainstream. The technology that creators use to express themselves (e.g. Instagram, YouTube) becomes commonplace. The technology that creators don’t embrace or that have too high of a barrier of entry (e.g. virtual reality) remain niche.
As creators and businesses, we have a choice to wait and see what sticks before dipping our toes in new technologies. But some of us, Acme Innovation in particular, prefer to operate on the fringes of developing technology, seeking new tools that can empower creators and bring together communities, thus having a chance of breaking through to mainstream adoption.
My earliest job in entertainment was building and managing ecommerce stores for bands. In the first few years of my career, I saw ecommerce change from something that was only achievable for artists that had label support or technical know-how to a standard best practice for every upstart local band. Soon, Shopify became the ubiquitous platform for creators of all sizes that sold merch–or Bandcamp, for artists that preferred a more indie approach.
Then came the post-Facebook social media landscape, blockchain, AR/VR, and now AI. For those of us whose jobs rely on being “in the know” on technology developments, there’s a daunting acknowledgement of knowing that the new technology you’re diving into now may not be the trend you have to be on top of in six months.
As I dug into new AI tools last year, I realized I was subconsciously following a process that I had used with previous technologies. A process that quickly gets me up to speed on the technology and creates an educated lens through which to view the developing ecosystems. It requires being a consumer, practitioner, and academic; not always at the same time, but in rapid succession. Importantly, a technical background is not required to do this.
To illustrate this methodology, I’ll share the steps I used to learn both blockchain tech between 2017-2020 and AI tech over the past year. In each step, I explain which role (consumer, practitioner, academic) I’m embodying for that phase and why it’s important to recognize that role.
1. Recognizing Buzz
Consumer. Discovering new technologies begins with surrounding yourself with curious people. Be it through professional relationships or who you’re following on social media and newsletters, it’s easy to identify a trend when enough curious people are talking about it.
Blockchain, 2016/2017: George Howard, my former professor at Berklee College of Music and future boss, began interviewing artists who were using blockchain technology for his Forbes column. I was following him on Twitter and used his articles to find more people in the blockchain field to follow.
AI, 2022: OpenAI’s DALL-E natural language image prompts take the internet by storm. I couldn’t avoid seeing this. Even the early generative images with all of their glitches and artifacts went viral.
2. Play With Early Stage Tools
Consumer. Once you recognize the buzz, find the companies that are building tools that provide access to this new form of technology. If you’re early enough, there won’t be many tools available (yet). This usually requires signing up for a few beta products or reading through forums for instructions on how to use these tools.
Blockchain, 2017: I set up a MetaMask wallet, purchased Bitcoin and Ethereum from Coinbase, and set off looking for places where I could use those currencies. This was before NFTs and OpenSea, so the options were comparatively limited.
AI, June 2022: I signed up for Midjourney as soon as it was available and began generating art–initially for fun, and eventually for cover art for artists that I was working with at the time (check out the cover art for “First Flight to Mars” by Ark Woods for an example).
3. Build Something
Practitioner. When new technology emerges, there are two types of leaders in the field. The builders who launch projects using the new technology, and the educators who teach people how to use it. In step 2, I searched for the tools and people who created them. Now, it’s time to search for the educators that will teach me how to utilize this technology in my own projects. In every technology wave, I’ve found that seeking out tools also reveals the educators.
Those educators will point you to the platforms that allow for users to build on top of them. This may be publicly available APIs, tools with built-in integrations, or self-service tools. It often takes me a few tries to find the tools and platforms that match my technological aptitude and available time while still providing a deep enough immersion for me to learn something in the process. However, even the tools that are too difficult for me to learn (often because they require coding skills beyond my abilities) or too easy (not enough to play with under the hood), help point me in the direction of what I should be looking for.
Blockchain, 2019: As NFTs became popularized in 2019, I minted a photo of my parent’s dog, then an original piece of music, and then created an ASA on Algorand. None of these were created with commercial intentions (that would come later). These were simply experiments to see how far I could go with my limited technical background. Understanding how accessible this technology is provides insight into how quickly businesses and non-technical creators will be able to adopt it.
AI, 2022: I took a course on NoCode.mba to create a couple basic Chat-GPT powered bots on Bubble: Content Brainstorm Bot and Persona Creator. I’m proud to say that, thus far, they have not threatened any users.
4. Learn the “Right” Questions
Academic. Building something, even something small, gives you insight into how much more sophisticated tools are built. From here, you can figure out the right questions to ask. Questions that you wouldn’t have thought of previously.
Blockchain, 2019/2020: Minting and transferring these early NFTs on Ethereum were expensive. I started to look at how projects with experienced developers were creating efficient and secure smart contracts, where they were storing the media, how they were integrating with other services like Discord, and how the different blockchains impacted these decisions.
AI, 2023: AI tools are popping up left and right because of the available APIs. Seeing how easy it was to build these tools lead to a few conclusions and questions:
1) AI tools will quickly be commoditized;
2) The tools differentiation will be in whether they use proprietary data sets/fine tuning, what the tool creator empowers users to do with the AI outputs, and how much customization they provide the user without compromising the quality of results;
3) Companies/creators that do not rely on the popular APIs but have proprietary machine learning technology will have a significant competitive advantage and not have the same vulnerabilities as the companies that do use those APIs;
4) Customer retention and marketing efforts will play a unique role in this ecosystem.
5. Put This Knowledge To Use
Practitioner. This newfound insight creates a new filter through which to view the new developments. Buzzy projects can be vetted more quickly. It becomes easier to identify the people that are making truly innovative strides. And inspiration strikes in a much more tangible way because you know what to do with it.
At Acme Innovation, I’ve got the great fortune to work on exciting and cutting edge projects that use blockchain and AI technology. Whether it’s advising our portfolio companies, leading marketing initiatives, or helping to build our in-house incubated projects, I constantly refer back to the previous steps in this methodology (and often repeat them).
While this approach seems obvious and natural in retrospect, having a path to follow to learn whatever comes next makes these developments far less intimidating and far more exciting. Participating as a consumer, an academic, and a practitioner–and knowing when to be each of those roles–grants perspective that I don’t believe can be gained otherwise.