March 17, 2015

Book Review : Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn't Be Done by Mick Ebeling

[This article was published in The Hindu Business Line on 16-Mar-2015]

When Tony Stark in his lab fixes the limb of the Iron Man suit and goes on and creates multiple and better versions of the limbs, the audience hardly realizes the bionic expert's potential in the real world. When Technology meets Humanity, the arena just opens up a million fold and prospects are numerous. What was a chance invitation to an art gallery turned out to be a roller coaster ride for our author Mick Ebeling, changing his career path, his life and also the lives of many - near and far from him – in the due course. 'Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn't Be Done" is a collection of a few chapters from Mick's life in the Maker avatar as he takes us on this adventurous, yet path-breaking ride wherein Humanity is the greatest benefactor at the end of the day.

Mick Ebeling is an award-winning TV and film producer as well as an author, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He also is the founder of the Not Impossible Foundation, a nonprofit organization that oversees Not Impossible Labs, which works with state-of-the-art technology to create practical and cheap solutions to some of the problems that we humans face. Mick's inspirational journey and his DIY(Do It Yourself) attitude leads him to create simple gadgets that solve often overlooked yet much needed human necessities. 

The author recounts his experiences with technology adoption and how it ended up changing many lives. One of the first is the The EyeWriter project.  The EyeWriter project tracks the development and implementation of a painting tool for a young graffiti artist (named Tempt). Tempt is a graffiti artist who is stuck down by ALS and hence is not unable to use his limbs to express his art. EyeWriter, a device which looks like a pair of glasses developed by Mick and his team, lets ALS patients to draw just using their eyes. The device is a low cost eyetracking system developed using inexpensive cameras and open source software. Tempt’s start communicating again and the emails that he sends to Mick and the whole dynamics of making the EyeWriter even more functional and powerful is sublime to the reader. Tempt’s nirvana moment is best portrayed when he says “That was the first time I’d drawn anything since 2003. I felt like I had been held underwater, and someone finally reached down and pulled my head up so I could take a breath”. Mick's thought process and his philosophy of development is best portrayed in this story which sets the right backdrop for the rest of the book.  

Committing to a problem, and then figuring out a solution seems to be the modus operandi. 'Commit'(Yes), then figure it out 'how', in such a way that 'why' is self-demonstrating is the mantra that Mick espouses and is often seen evangelizing.  With regards the ‘how’, he lays importance on Singularity of Focus, Giving it Away, and Beautiful-Limitless Naivete as driving forces in his creative process. Mick lays a lot of emphasis on open sourcing the solution, as this is an extremely potent force for easier collaboration amongst people who are geographically dispersed and for the easier access, assimilation and implementation of the final solutions. The idea of ‘Help One, Help Many’ is only possible when the solution is given away for free, makes reduction in costs and exploration of alternative schematics and technologies.

The author does not share any recipe or any roadmap or a charter of how to achieve the Impossible, but shares his own hands-on approach and experiences which are true testaments of his thought processes. The style of First Person Singular across the whole book makes the read extremely light and it feels like a big blog post being transformed into a book. Sometimes, the author takes the reader to a fantasy land with so much energy radiating from the former. Mick comes off as a guy who is an excellent project manager or a highly energetic motivational coach (a.k.a Kabir Khan in Chak De). His ability to spot the problem, commit to it and then collating resources and the constant iterations to better the result is a constant reminder to all the Managers to hone their thought processes.

One of the most intense experiences is his sojourn into the war torn Sudan for Project Daniel wherein the author ends up printing 3D prosthetic limb for a young boy(Daniel) who loses both his hands at the age of 14. The author risks his life and takes many important decisions, but is often seen asking self-prophesying question of : “If not now, when? If not me, who?” And hence underlining the importance of each individual's capacity for betterment of humanity. Mick crosses enemy lines thereby putting even his life on danger in the extremely volatile Sudanese territory, but his singular focus on solving Daniel’s physical disability keeps him on the driver’s seat. The reader is almost transported to the scene of action in Sudan wherein after being fitted with the prosthetic limb, Mick narrates the scene as : “Daniel had never tasted chocolate before. And if you think the sight of a kid seeing his own hand wave to him for the first time would warm your heart, imagine the sight of that kid feeding himself, for the first time, a chocolate brownie. Daniel, of course, ate three”.

Collaboration is the key in any such kind of a compelling venture that leads to a greater good. When people with different and limitless expertise work in tandem, the opportunities are never ending. The author is humble and keeps reminding about his team and the volunteers who popped in from various nook and corners of the world during brainstorming, prototyping and made his dreams and the devices a success. But how to motivate people to spend enormous amounts of their time and psychic energy on a project, any project for that matter, other than the monetary component? Mick states that the beauty of the Not Impossible concept is that they simply put the problem out in the open and wait for motivated people to find it. People find their passion, their calling, and end up taking the problem and do that it for the forseeable future; thereby making the calling more meaningful for themselves.

By bringing in the personal dimension, the author keeps the reader extremely close to the events that are happening, and at times, almost makes the reader an onlooker. "Not Impossible" belongs to a genre after reading which you are very much prompted to join the author's bandwagon and put in the best efforts to change the world one step at a time. Adrenaline rushes through at some places and the reader cultivates a deep respect for the author for his efforts. The book is an important milestone in the Maker movement. Chris Anderson's 'Makers' set the stage a few years back and Mick's book, takes it one level up. The book does not lay down a charter or rules or commandments for innovation, but sheer story telling from the Maker's perspective makes it an enjoyable read.

This book is a slap on the face of those skeptics and pessimists who harbor the thought of "Sorry, this ain't gonna happen" and give up even before a game begins. This is not about winning and losing. This is not about fighting. This book is about creating experiences for humanity by leveraging technology that makes people rediscover their lost talents and bring their smiles back. Or as Mick states it 'Technology for the sake of humanity'.

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