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A profile in precociousness

When I think of inventors or innovators, I picture exalted folks such as Thomas Edison and Eli Whitney, the type of figures phone book-size biographies are written about. Inventors can be compelling characters after all. Their achievements provide an instant narrative arc to their lives, making even missteps that came before it seem, in retrospect, fateful. But 'what if that "Ah ha!" moment comes at 18? What's your destiny then?

The May 17 issue of the New Yorker introduces us to someone who might yet know the answer: Andrey Ternovskiy, the Russian teen creator of Chatroulette. The site allows people to communicate online with a random assortment strangers around the world. If the face that appears on your screen looks disturbing too you or just plain boring, you can just hit the "Next" button and move on.

As inventions go, Chatroulette is obviously not on the same level as, say, blood transfusions or electric lighting. But it speaks to Ternovskiy's peculiar genius, such as his ability to solve complex math problems only when they are presented in novel visual ways. Otherwise, his math tutor explains, he's too lazy to bother trying.

Ternovskiy, it also becomes clear, is a parent's nightmare of a digital age kid who learned to code before he could grow facial hair and who paid more attention to learning hacking than to learning history. As the writer Julia Ioffe explains:

The best way to talk to Ternovskiy is through some kind of digital intermediary. Shy and evasive in person, he fills with a wry swagger when he is just a stream of text. “They have no business no money blablablabla,” he typed to me one afternoon, feigning phlegmatic unconcern with the financial woes of an advertiser he’d been negotiating with—his only one. Like much of his generation, Ternovskiy has an online persona far more developed than his real one.

His closest confidant is a Russian immigrant named Kirill Gura, who lives in Charleston, West Virginia. Every night for the past five years, Ternovskiy has turned on his computer, found Kirill on MSN Messenger, and talked to him until one of them fell asleep. “He’s a real friend,” Ternovskiy says.

Sitting in his carefully engineered workspace—a comfortable chair and two giant monitors placed at the precise distance that Wikipedia says prevents eyestrain and a humped posture—Ternovskiy says that he sees the computer as “one hundred per cent my window into the world.” He doesn’t seek much else. “I always believed that computer might be that thing that I only need, that I only need that thing to survive,” he says. “It might replace everything.”

For me, the more fascinating story seemed to begin just as the article ends, with his arrival in the U.S. Ternovskiy somewhat impulsively decides to come and build a future here. It's clear, though, that despite having made his mark in the digital world, he has a long way to go to master life in the real one, which becomes obvious when he meets his online BFF Kirill face-to-face. You can find out what happens here.

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By Annys Shin  | May 17, 2010; 12:20 PM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  | Tags:  Eli Whitney, Kirill Gura, New Yorker, Russia, Thomas Edison, Wikipedia  
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