If you’ve heard about Jay Walker before, you may know him as the notoriously ardent proponent of patent protection, or as the new face of TEDMED, or maybe simply as the founder of online travel service Priceline. You wouldn’t be wrong in any of those characterizations, but as we got a chance to see earlier this week, there is a great deal behind each of those faces of Jay Walker, and some more faces besides.
Tuesday evening, Mr. Walker came to speak to NYU students and faculty at the second installation of Inside the Internet Garage, an interview series aimed at documenting the oral history of the movers and shakers responsible for the rise of the Internet industry. This event, part of NYU’s new initiative for Internet and Network Cultures (INC@NYU), has already profiled a pair of influential tech journalists – Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, of the Wall Street Journal and AllThingsDigital – but this time it was the businessman’s turn to speak.
Walker is an electrifying speaker, with a stage presence that commands attention and a speaking style that can, in the same sentence, assert facts and still encourage the listener to question those facts. Our host, professor Aaron Cohen, harnessed that energy, guiding Walker through his roles as an innovative entrepreneur, a controversial patent holder, and an inspirational thinker and speaker.
Cohen opened with the topic of Priceline, an online travel service that, in its time, revolutionized online travel services. Although he admitted that being running a public company wasn’t easy, and “I could not unrecommend it more,” Walker described with no small degree of pride what it took to make Priceline work. These were the days where the term “ecommerce” had just been born, and traditional companies took a great deal to be persuaded that this new-fangled Internet was neither a passing fad nor a dangerous liability, but a useful tool.
Realizing he preferred invention to corporate management, Walker turned his energies to Walker Digital, his research and development lab. Given that Walker Digital is currently most well-known for filing lawsuits in 2011 against 100 major corporations for patent infringement, Cohen had no choice really but to bring the subject up. Here, things got heated.
Walker’s usually measured and thoughtful tone took on a sudden urgency, and hypotheticals flew fast and furious. On one side, we had the host playing devil’s advocate; “What about the charge that patents are a ‘tax on innovation’?” Cohen asked. On the other hand, a businessman who claimed to champion the rights of innovators, and who was frustrated with a legal process that gave the advantage to the patent infringer over the patent holder. It’s a question with no easy answers, and Cohen, more interested in getting to know Walker than the ins and outs of the patent debate, soon turned to one of Walker’s most recent triumphs.
TEDMED 2012, a medically-oriented offshoot of the massively influential TED conferences, happened a mere three weeks ago, the second year of the conference under Walker’s leadership. Get him started on the medicine of today and tomorrow, and Walker’s enthusiasm is palpable. “I should get an MD, I’ve spent so much time talking to doctors lately,” he cracks. But beyond that humor, Walker has, unsurprisingly, some truly progressive ideas about what the future of human health holds.
Whereas the revolutionary ideas of the 19th century involved harnessing electricity and steam power, and the 20th century saw the harnessing of information for production, the 21st century, Walker asserts, will be the century of biology. As we learn more about how our bodies work (and what happens when they don’t), we’ll find new ways of incorporating technology and networks into our physical forms, changes that will eventually lead to the apex of downloading our consciousness onto a non-organic system.
On that high note, with Walker depicting our dazzling future, the event transitioned from interview to audience questions. Audience members peppered Walker with questions about the future of communication and Walker had ready responses (“We may reach a point where we’re logged on all the time”), education (“The university as we know it is on its way out”), cities (“The idea of geography is going away. There are no more hubs, but instead centers”) about what he read and trusted (“Trust is not a property anymore, it is validation given gradually”).
Finally, he was asked what advice he would give to graduating students. “Be the person that solves problem,” Walker urged. “Your imagination is your best tool. Apply it to the world’s problems and you will succeed.”