Dan Bricklin, Co-Inventor of the Spreadsheet, Discusses How Nerds Are Like Sports Stars

Dan Bricklin, co-inventor of the spreadsheet, was in Chelsea on Tuesday night (he lives in Massachusetts), talking about engineers and how they “build the world.” Creating new technology with a diversity in mind is a “social responsibility,” he said.

It’s not just the geeks who are using computers and the latest technology, after all. It’s moms, teachers, politicians, and even kids in third world countries through the One Laptop Per Child organization.

Technology-based tools need for freedom of expression, he said, so people can use them to improvise during unexpected events and opportunities. Think of Twitter and its open-source platform–developers can create their own applications and features and use Twitter’s resources for whatever they want. “Users, not inventors, determine how tools are used,” he told the crowd at the New York Tech Meetup at the FIT Auditorium.

Mr. Bricklin, with his salt and pepper hair and gray-white beard, is a grandfather figure in the tech world. The MIT and Harvard graduate co-created VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for the PC, in the late 70’s and built a career creating new software and demo-ing technologies for programmers. He’s considered a leading thinker in how culture and technology are clashing and collaborating. His new book, Bricklin on Technology, out from Wiley this May, is based mostly on blog posts on his Web site and examines how engineers think when they’re creating things and how users are influencing them.

In the book, Mr. Bricklin covers people’s romances with their cell phones and digital cameras. He interviews the inventor of the Wiki. He describes how he looked at a calculator and imagined what the earliest desktop computers might look like. He said he became so close with his calculator that he dressed up as one while he was still in school. “Inside, I was integrated circuit man,” he told the crowd.

Why should anyone care?

“Some of our industry’s most influential people are now as well-known as famous sports stars,” he wrote in the introductory paragraph of the book. “People now make up jokes and stories involving Bill Gates the same way they used to with the Rockefellers and Rothchilds in the olden days. Television news treats new product introductions, Internet service interruptions, and computer virus outbreaks as major general news.”

And technology isn’t just effecting the financial world–but our social worlds. Consider seemingly mundane daily tasks that are infused with technology: “Word processing is the expected way to write,” he wrote. “An email address is often the only contact information you ask for. Carrying a cell phone is more important than a watch or wallet for many people around the world.”

At the event, Anil Dash, a well-respected blogger on technology who introduced Mr. Bricklin, asked him what he thinks will be the next radical revolutions in tech.

Mr. Bricklin sees computers recognizing our motions becoming a much more pervasive feature. Remember how we could only influence a computer with our keyboards? Then came the mouse. Soon, we’ll move our fingers, hands, and entire bodies to tell our computers what to do. Just consider how the iPhone is recognizing our fingers swiping across the screen to zoom and scroll, he said. He sees CNN’s election “Magical Wall” as an early example, in which multiple people can influence what is happening on a computer with their motions. “It used to be, I use it and then you use it,” he said. “Now it’s going to be we use it.”

Mr. Bricklin said programmers might not make as much money as say, Bill Gates, by working on software and projects that focus on helping a wide group of people, and not just the corporate world. But, as someone who has dedicated his career to building tools and researching how regular people use technology, he has ridden in private planes, traveled in limos, met presidents and even got his photograph in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated (as a model). And he keeps on getting asked to speak at events, like Tuesday night’s discussion. He wondered: “How many of you have been able to do that?”

Dan Bricklin, Co-Inventor of the Spreadsheet, Discusses How Nerds Are Like Sports Stars