The Low Expectations of High Tech Innovation

Flying CarFrequent commenter Jurgan posted a charming couple of letters that rocked the bread world a few years back. (I’ll write about it later today.) But it is all on Tumblr, and as you know, I don’t much understand new technologies. This is odd given that I’m paid to write about technology. But I guess it isn’t exactly true that I don’t know what it is. It’s a blogging platform. I just don’t understand why it is considered an innovation. I spend much of my life in awe of the fact that people get money for things that are not new. Like Facebook: how was that new? For those who don’t know (and this apparently includes the vast majority of Facebook users), it is an image sharing application. Really: that’s all it is. And those were around for years before Facebook.

None of this should be taken as a slight against people who use Facebook or Tumblr. They are fine tools. What’s annoying is that the press and investors treat these things as revolutionary when they aren’t. In particular, Facebook is useful because a lot of people use it. That appears to be the case with Tumblr as well, which hosts 271.5 million blogs with 126.6 billion posts. (Note: that’s an average of 466 posts per blog, which is pretty good given my experience with blogs is that a dozen is about average.)

In 1999, in an example of the kind of thinking that has shaped the internet for the last two decades, eXcite turned down an offer to buy Google for $750,000.

The thing about Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and many other of these social networking sites is that they are closed systems. To me, this is a great step backwards for the internet. Everyone should be on an equal footing. There are obvious advantages to having a closed system, but they are mostly advantages for the company. And you can see the problem on sites like Booman Tribune or Lawyers, Guns & Money. These sites require that you have an account to comment. They are big enough that they still host lively discussions, but they clearly limit discussion as well. (They probably do this because they haven’t realized that there is now software that filters out virtually all spam.)

It leads me back to the old Peter Thiel quote, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Now personally, I never wanted a flying car. This is because I’m still reasonably attached to living and you can just imagine if we have a quarter billion cars flying around with their drivers drinking hot coffee and texting photos of the thousands of car crashes they see each day. But there is a reason that we got 140 characters: because there is very little actual innovation that goes on in the realm of high tech.

Let me share with you a personal story. A couple of years back, I was working with Mikhail, a brilliant young hardware designer, on an amazing technology. I’m prevented by contract to explain it to you, but it had to do with extreme sports. It combined a number of advanced technologies to do something that frankly I didn’t think was possible before we started. But we couldn’t get money for it. At the same time, we knew a couple of guys who got a half million dollars to produce a wired toy submarine that had a camera in it. Wired. Almost a decade ago, Mikhail and I were streaming video from RC helicopters in our spare time, and these guys had money dumped on them for a toy that would have been only marginally cool in 1980.

The truth of the matter is that capitalism is not a good system for creating innovation. And capitalists know this. This is why the big pharmaceutical companies depend upon the government to do the research on anything actually innovative. Otherwise, they just stick to the tried and true: yet another erectile dysfunction drug, yet another benzodiazepine, yet another Vicodin knockoff. And in the area of high tech, who wants to invest in something that is actually new, when they can just market a photo sharing site as if it were a major innovation? Or yet another blogging platform like Tumblr, which sold for over a billion dollars less than three years ago? We don’t have innovation because we don’t value innovation; we value profit.


Oh, you know what was revolutionary? The Google algorithm. And they had a hell of a time getting money. In 1999, in an example of the kind of thinking that has shaped the internet for the last two decades, eXcite turned down an offer to buy Google for $750,000. (That’s just over a million in today’s currency.) In America, what passes for innovation is Mitt Romney investing in Staples with the brilliant idea that business supplies could be sold through a chain that gets lots of government funding to put small business supply stores out of business.

18 thoughts on “The Low Expectations of High Tech Innovation

  1. Back when I was running for Congress I read a book on the invention of new medications. One of the things the books mentioned is how it can take decades for new medications to be developed which most companies actually don’t have the money to throw at. Which would be fine if businesses didn’t act like they are the reasons that we have medications when they don’t do as much R&D as they could compared to the amount they spend on marketing.

    It seems like business and venture capitalists are very risk adverse for all the claims they make that they value risk. Which is super annoying but what are you going to do except post about it on a blog and hope it goes viral? :p

    • In general, VCs are only interested in a company that 1-2 years out from profitability. But they love to push the idea that they are the visionary ones. And when it comes to the drug companies, they use this myth to justify their ridiculous prices. If an $84,000 drug in the US can sell at a profit for $100 in India, then we aren’t talking about a free market.

      • Yup-back then the author pointed out that literally half of the profit they make comes from the US. Not sure if it is the same now but still is startling how much money they make off of us and the people who do notice this have little power to change it.

        • I would like to see an analysis of Amazon. It has always had razor thin profit margins. But it was given anywhere from a 0% to a 10% advantage (depending upon the state) by not having to pay sales taxes. I just don’t think that half the small book stores would be out of business if they had been given a similar subsidy. This is entirely typical. The same thing goes on with Walmart. Small stores can’t demand tax breaks. These little stores don’t go out of business because they can’t compete in a fair fight. They can’t compete in an unfair fight and we are all told it is just the free market. It’s hogwash.

  2. Aww, in just a few weeks I’ve become a “frequent commenter.” If you’re curious, you can thank Paul Bibeau at Goblin Books for sending me here.

    I would take that “466 posts” number with a grain of salt. The most notable thing about Tumblr is the ease of “reblogging” other people’s post. I see something interesting, like the giraffe bread thing, I hit reblog, maybe add my own thoughts, and hit “done,” and it appears on my blog. So it would be a mistake to think of it as 466 unique posts per blog, as many of those would be duplicates from other blogs.

    What I find most interesting about these platforms is how cultures grow up in them. You wouldn’t think a blogging platform would have an ideology, but Tumblr has become known for trying to be inclusive and tolerant to the point of parody. It’s often synonymous with the infamous “Social Justice Warrior.” And sometimes they have a point, like when people make up bizarre pronouns for themselves and insist on others using them. There was also the infamous “Dash Con” last year, where people who’d never run a convention before tried to host a massive con for thousands of Tumblr users, and ended up not able to pay the guests they had flown there. They ended up trying to compensate disappointed attendees by giving them an hour to play in a ball pit they’d set up. It was… sad. However, I prefer Tumblr to Reddit, which has become a recruiting ground for MRA’s and racists. Again, Reddit is just a link aggregator, but something about the site’s tolerance for “free speech” and anonymity allowed full-on child porn trading to blossom. I saw a breakdown of the gender of the users of these various platforms, and it wasn’t that surprising. There could be an interesting project for an aspiring sociologist in examining how these blog cultures evolve.

    • Hey, I found this place because of Paul Bibeau too!

      It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that some areas are female dominated-the common thread is inclusiveness not exclusive using pictures. The Dash Con shows why it is important for people to know how to do things before they organize anything large.

      • Yeah, some people thought Dash Con was a scam, but I didn’t see anything malicious there. Just a mix of incompetence and overconfidence from people who had no idea what they were getting into.

        Sure, inclusiveness is important, but why is Tumblr more inclusive than Reddit? What is it about the structure of these platforms that attracts different audiences? Or is it really just random? I suppose after a while it becomes self-perpetuating- people hear that a certain place is inviting, they are the type of people that value that so they join, and it becomes more so as a result. Me, I just wanted a platform with unlimited space for blogging, and my wife was already on Tumblr, so I gave it a shot.

        • I am involved now with Phoenix Comic Con as a volunteer and the fact is that if you want to do a Con of any kind, you should start small so you can have people learn how to run it first then start getting the Bruce Campbells of the that world to show up.

          Self perpetuating makes sense although I think because Tumblr is much more open to everyone it made it seem safe for women to join in.

    • Ah, another thing to thank PB for. He’s such an amazing guy. I hope to meet him at a comic convention some time and try to convince him to create a one man show.

      I’ve definitely seen some creepy stuff over at reddit. But mostly, I just stick to their political tracker, which is helpful when I can’t think of anything to write. FARK is good for that too. Digg used to be good for that, but they blew it over the last several years.

      I tend to avoid all of these kinds of sites as a commenter, because I feel that people will misunderstand me. I generally need about 500 words to be clear. On Twitter, I’ll often think of something funny to write making fun of a racist and realize that many people will take what I wrote as racist. I just don’t need the hassle. (One of my “great” ideas: after the Trayvon Martin murder, I wanted to market hoodies that had printed on them, “Don’t shoot! I’m white!” A brilliant indictment of our racist society or racist itself? I could never decide.)

      But I think there is a place for allowing people to quickly and easily post things they find interesting. I’ve been looking for a way to add a kind of subblog here where I can just post something short without images or pull quotes or any of that. At the same time, I’m kind of hung up on things being just so. I’m really annoying the people at my day job about our CSS being screwed up. But the original idea of a blog was just to be a diary. Now it is ridiculously complicated. I don’t think most people realize. So something simple is good.

      Those are great stats. I might be able to use that for an article.

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