I hate it when the first time I hear about an amazing person is when I read her obituary.
I suppose it’s a reflection on the limits of my own horizons that I had never heard of Red Burns until I read the New York Times obit about the woman who had an outsized influence on technology, Silicon Valley and the way we all communicate with each other.
Burns, who died at last week at 88, was the founder of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. She was known as the godmother of Silicon Alley, but it’s clear that her work helped shape Silicon Valley innovations in ways that make them more relevant to all of us.
Burns saw that the important thing about technology is not what gadgets and gizmos are capable of doing, but what humans are capable of doing with the gadgets and gizmos. It sounds like a subtle distinction, but in fact it’s a philosophy that moves technologists away from inventing for invention’s sake and instead inventing to make a better world.
The Times obit talks about Burns’ role in developing a two-way television system and practical uses for the first portable video camera. It touches on her role in whimsical projects, including a talking gumball machine and a refrigerator that came with a video-generated mother scolding those who reached in for a box of chocolates.
Her most significant legacy might have been the program’s 3,000 graduates, who the Times reports went on to Google, Apple, Microsoft, Disney and a number of other tech companies.
Among the notable was Dennis Crowley, who the Times points out, started Dodgeball with classmate Alex Rainert. They sold Dodgeball to Google, the Times reports, and Crowley went on to start mayor-making app Foursquare.
Apparently Burns, who the NYT tells us was born Goldie Gennis, was not a technical genius. And maybe that was her strong suit. What she had was wisdom and certain genius about what made people tick.
The Atlantic Wire featured a sampling of Burns’ wisdom here.
The NYT laid it out in a passage, which quotes ITP chairman Daniel O’Sullivan:
“Ms. Burns, he added, did not really believe that technical expertise was essential to creativity, partly because technology is continually changing. Another reason, Mr. O’Sullivan said with a laugh, was that ‘she really had zero technical aptitude.’
‘To me, the computer is just another tool,’ Ms. Burns once said. ‘It’s like a pen. You have to have a pen, and to know penmanship, but neither will write the book for you.'”
(Foursquare screen shot courtesy of Foursquare)