Making Trouble — Smiley Face Technologies

There are innumerable things to make one depressed these days. Oil spills, a dysfunctional economy, worsening political extremism, and an awful long-term environmental outlook.

Fortunately for me, I have an antidote that keeps me upbeat, something special and beautiful that keeps me optimistic about the human condition, the human mind, and the power of thinking. I apparently have a high enough public profile that I receive something like “fan mail.” People share their ideas with me.

Many are just ideas — not well-developed, and thousands of hours and many over-turnings of the original idea away from becoming an idea that will change the world in the manner in which the thinker hopes. Which is not to say they’re bad ideas; I don’t think any ideas are bad. Ideas are just ideas, things to play with, things to inspire, thought experiments. “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” “If only I had a …” “The world really needs a … !”

I get all these ideas sent to me, but I’m not sure what people think I’m going to do with them. I’m struggling to get through my own pile of ideas!

I keep mine in a stack of numbered notebooks, and look at them every New Year’s Eve to remind myself that there is more to do next year, including ignoring a lot of the ideas that were good at the time but silly upon reflection.

A lot of the ideas people send me are accompanied with a note: “I hope you can do something with this idea. I don’t have the resources, but I know the world needs it.” I really, really love those — but more on that later. The ideas I don’t like are the ones with a note like this: “I have this idea, and it’s so good, you’ll have to promise me all sorts of things before I tell you about my idea.” No thanks. Keep your idea and your paranoia and don’t send me intellectual extortion of that kind.

To all the people who send me ideas saying, “Please do something with this idea,” I thank you.

I can’t promise you that I’ll do something with them (like I said before, I’m struggling with my own), but I thank you anyway. And the next best thing is to celebrate you and your ideas. Congratulations! You have ideas, and what’s more, you have generosity. You could just sit at home and watch television, but you don’t. You tinker about, having ideas.

One of my favorite correspondents is a fellow in prison. Yes, prison. I don’t know what he did to get there (let’s assume it was an unpaid traffic infringement), but here’s the thing: he’s a guy, in prison. Society has given him the ultimate “no thank-you” and locked him up. But from within that prison, he still has the audacity, and the hope, to have ideas. Not ideas for him to escape prison — no, these are his ideas that he feels could benefit humanity!

And right there is the reason my eyes well up with every one of these letters. People believe that their ideas can help the world. And they do! There is nothing more beautiful, more generous, more hopeful.

To all of you out there with ideas, I salute you. Keep having those ideas. Some of those ideas will make it. Some of them will cure cancer. Some of them will make a better dishwasher. Your hope is mine, the hope that with the collection of our ideas, good and ill-formed, we’ll make the world a better place for us and our children to live in.

I have a wonderful friend, Dan Paluska. He has ideas — lots of them. He’s got some wisdom, too. He categorizes the world of technology and ideas into two kinds: good practical ideas and technologies (things you use every day), and “smiley face technologies.” I love the very concept of the latter. When I first heard him describe it, I naturally asked, what are these smiley face technologies? He said, “The Slinky, Pac-Man, rubber duckies — you know, the things that aren’t necessarily useful for anything other than putting a smile on your face.“

So here’s what I ask. Don’t just concentrate on good, practical ideas for saving a small or large piece of the world. Be sure to include the odd “smiley face technology.” If we’re going to celebrate any ideas at all, we should also celebrate the ones that have no purpose other than making us smile. We do have a lot of problems that need ideas, but we shouldn’t be so serious about humanity’s purpose as to forget that making people smile and inventing silly things might actually be the highest purpose of all.

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Saul Griffith

DR. SAUL GRIFFITH is founder and principal scientist at Otherlab, an independent R&D lab, where he focuses on engineering solutions for a clean energy, net-zero carbon economy. Occasionally making some pretty cool robots too. Saul got his PhD from MIT, and is a founder or co-founder of,,,,,,, and more. Saul was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.

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