Book Review: Without Their Permission, by Alexis Ohanian

Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, by Alexis Ohanian. Hatchette Books. Hardback. (c)2013. $27.

For those in the “know,” Alexis Ohanian needs no introduction. Alexis, together with Steve Huffman, built reddit, the “front page of the Internet.” Sitting in their living room, using nothing but laptops, two fellows, undergraduates at the University of Virginia, created one of the world’s most popular Internet destinations.

For those unfamiliar with reddit and Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, spend some time with reddit. Myself, I created a reddit account long ago, yet recently never put much thought into using reddit. Used wisely, like Twitter, reddit is a valuable resource for learning and networking with other creative and thoughtful people. reddit is a good resource for sharing and learning more details about current events, current trends in technology, software, apps, science, all sorts of interesting topics. reddit is not simply for discovering the newest Grumpy Cat meme. If you have a question about drones, about Ruby, about programming, about Arduino or RaspberryPi, about 3D printing or scanning, get on reddit and add to the conversation.

Alexis overcame his “Sue”-like name, (Johnny Cash reference) to become one of the most vocal advocates for Internet freedom, innovation, and entrepreneurialism in the United States. Recently, Alexis was in the news supporting Net Neutrality and encouraging people to pay more attention to proposed rules changes by the FCC. (TechCrunch, April 2014) What most people don’t seem to get is with every conglomerate merger, with every FCC rules change, the Internet becomes narrower and narrower. Picture a canal with ships and boats moving through, first come, first serve, small commercial ships, pleasure craft, all the way up to the huge cargo ships. Now, the owners of the supercargo ships don’t feel like they should have to share the canal with everyone else and would like to control, i.e. prioritize, the movement of ships through the canal. Big ships will always take precedence over small ships, to the point small ships, and small boat owners may never see the other side, may never reach their market.

OK, I agree my analogy is an oversimplification, but in a nutshell, the imagery isn’t too bad, really. Think of Net Neutrality as rich guys trying to buy their way to the water fountain. Then, they get to control who gets to drink.

See, at no time in human history have so many people had access to so much for so little to do so much with. A person in Afghanistan can sell rugs using a cellphone to a person wanting Afghan rugs in Germany. A kid sitting in a dorm room can build a website to connect his college friends, two guys can program a search engine in their apartment and change the way the world looks at information, and two guys can build the “front page to the Internet,” using two laptops, beer, and pizza.

The Internet does allow an individual to make a difference

Anyone today, with enough drive, desire, determination, can create something and go from unknown to known in a matter of months. One of my new favorite podcasts, The New Disruptors, is all about creative, innovative people doing things they love. In Episode 68, “See You in the Funny Webpages with Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder,” listeners are treated to anecdotes about young people doing something they like, creating cartoons and comic strips, and leveraging the power of the Internet to build their audience.

All of the episodes I’ve listened to are insightful, thought-provoking, and driven by details, humor, and a meaningful candor any person wishing to branch out on their own should take to heart. But, this episode was especially interesting, as comic strips, and the history of comic strips was the topic. Besides a new documentary revealing the backgrounds of many of the most famous comic strips, “Stripped,” (website), the hosts and guests discuss several people who advanced their drawing pastime into a lucrative ventures.

All of this is part of the message of Ohanian’s book, Without Their Permission. You don’t need anyone’s permissions to be successful, to strike out on your own and do something worthwhile. Whether a person is interested in developing a charity to support a cause, such as providing assistance to the people of Joplin, Missouri in the aftermath of a deadly tornado, to crowd-funding classroom projects in under-funded school districts using, anyone has the power to build, create, develop on the Internet.

The world is not “flat” as Thomas Friedman has sometimes advocated. Not really. The Internet is not exactly flat, either; not with countries like China censoring much of the world’s Internet traffic for local consumption while building their own competing Chinese internet, including social networking platforms and Amazon competitor. Russia avoids the flat internet by attempting to do the same thing, shutting down journalism, speech, Internet access and essentially commerce in what they claim is American hegemony of the Internet. While Russian claims of U.S. hegemony of the Internet may be true, the world is much better off with more internet freedom than less, as both China and Russia advocate.

The Internet does allow an individual to make a difference and that scares the bejeezus out of multinational corporations, like Time-Warner, ATT, DirecTV, and Oracle.

Alexis’ states, “Ideas are worthless.” (91) I don’t disagree with his sentiment, I would only add my own amendment: “without execution.” Having an idea is worthless if the idea dies, if it evaporates, if the idea is never executed. Everything we have today has roots in an idea, but our stuff exists today because someone or some group took the idea and transitioned the idea into something.

Alexis’ book should be read by anyone thinking about venturing out on their own. Readers will be treated to many inspiring stories and personal anecdotes related to his and Steve’s first forays into the internet and application development business. While not a step-by-step guide on getting your idea started, Alexis’ offers many tips and personal observations on how to focus your energy. Ignore the competition, pay attention to people, the users, and don’t hate the haters. My favorite bit of advice is one I tell anyone who will listen, though.

Surround yourself with people who give a damn about what they do. A corollary to this rule is to surround yourself with thoughtful, creative people who have a desire to do more, to achieve something. In other words, surrounds yourself with people who have goals, dreams, visions, and couple those attributes with good, solid skills. Having a party to celebrate something good is fine, but being indulgent in drugs, drama, and the nonsense of sordid pursuits is nothing but draining and does not move society forward.

Surround yourself with people who give a damn about what they do

I loaded a question for Alexis Ohanian, who stopped by the university I work for, being the invited keynote speaker for a regional high school competition, The Next Big Thing. I asked Alexis what he thought about the rising tide of anti-intellectualism coming from one political party. As a follow-up, I asked if he could speak about the value of his own college experience. Part of the anti-intellectualism movement uses the false notion a college degree is not necessary to be successful, citing Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, among others as evidence. Thankfully, Alexis indulged me and my concern, clearly pointing out two important facts. First, both he and Steve Huffman graduated from the University of Virginia. Secondly, and what I argue is most important, the higher education experience brought Alexis and Steve together, a happenstance, no doubt, yet building a team resulting in their mutual success within 9 months of graduating (both became multimillionaires within a year of graduation). United States colleges and universities are breeding grounds for innovation and entrepreneurialism unlike any other in the world.

I bought two copies of Alexis’ book, Without Their Permission. One signed copy I kept for myself; I need motivation, on occasion. One signed copy I gave away to a student in my department in hopes she will find inspiration to do something with her ideas.

I recommend Alexis Ohanian’s book, Without Their Permission (#WTPBook) to anyone needing a push to get started, to any young person wanting a revealing look inside how a couple people take an idea from concept to realized endeavor. A high school kid will get as much from this book as any retired person, bored from a daily routine and looking to reach out and engage with the world.

Did I find the book personally inspiring? Sure. For a couple years, my director and I have been attempting to push our university to become more innovative, more receptive to new ideas, technologies, modes of learning, and encouraging a greater sense of holistic learning. All learning is holistic in nature, really; good faculty and staff illuminate through what I refer to as “good coaching” the interconnections of our environment. One of higher educations greatest weaknesses is college and departmental stove-piping, stake-claiming, and territory-grabbing of topics, fields, disciplines, and information. While students experience great depth of learning, the breadth of learning is constricted when students are not exposed to the economics, history, geography, or mathematics involved in a subject.

Recently, we initiated a venture, “RacerWerx,” an attempt to bring together people of varied skills on our campus to create a holistic STEM learning environment. Faculty from education, biology, engineering, graphic arts and design, and computer programming, for instance, have signed on to support this effort. But, as with any project, I still must push, to reach out, to educate, to promote this idea, as many people, despite being in higher education, are simply sclerotic in thinking. And learning, like business, must be adaptive.

So, give a damn and go do something Without Their Permission!

One thought on “Book Review: Without Their Permission, by Alexis Ohanian

  1. Pingback: Steal My Idea, Please! | Constant Geography

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