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Reconciling Tech’s Lack of Progress with its Disproportionate Influence

Posted in Startups, Technology

In one of the latest a16z podcasts on role of academia in startups, Marc Andreessen ridicules a seemingly contradictory pair of stances taken by the media as critiques on the tech industry at large:

There’s kinda two critiques right now in the media…

Critique #1 is tech is not working on big problems. It’s basically all – everything in Silicon Valley – is these silly little apps, not tackling the hard problems.

The other critique is that tech is having way too big of an impact on our culture and society. And, like, throwing everything in upheaval and destroying all the jobs and reordering all the industries and changing the culture…having this disastrous impact, and the impact needs to slow down.

Nobody attempts to ever reconcile those two critiques…

Well, I can give it a shot.

The fallacy in Marc’s critique—of the media’s critiques—is that it conflates hard problems with societal impact. Though solutions to hard problems can have huge ramifications for ordinary folks, most of the time they simply don’t. Unlike the philosophies of staunch libertarians, successful commercialization is not directly correlated with impactful progress.

Our current crop of tech startups is largely focused on communications. The vast majority of their products rely on the web: an extremely cheap, fast, and efficient network that enables communication at a global scale instantly. And while startups and apps can be built in a weekend, this massive infrastructure that powers these apps was itself a “hard problem” which took a decade of research to create.

But it has been these applications on top of the internet that has caused massive changes in human behavior, most notably, via services and apps that upend incumbent companies and disrupt established industries. They’re a part of the evolution of communication brought about by the internet’s invention. Imagine that if AirBnb or Uber could not exist, if they were required to build out their own networks or smartphones or GPSs in establishing their core services. What the end user sees as an app or a website is built on a pyramid of technological progress, standing on its tippy toes upon shoulders of giants.

On the idea of undue societal impact, it turns out that social and political change are accelerated when the means of communication are accelerated. Virality in the age of the internet is so much faster than any other medium’s network effects, and the end result is changed behavior at a massive scale. At the same time, just as these changes are easily made, they are also easily unmade; messaging apps fall in and out of favor, delivery and on-demand services come and go, and the vast majority of apps remain stubbornly ephemeral.

For the bigger technological leaps—those that invite comparisons to the development of railroads and electricity and the internet itself—they’re not suited to the current VC-based startup model. Meaningful progress happens on much longer time scales, and requires substantially more money than than what’s currently powering tiny software startups. It is hard work, rife with failure, and slow creeping progress doesn’t make for great press or watercooler discussion.

We should accept that there will be many entrepreneurs who are in the game for the short term, and trust that there are dedicated folks who have long-term visions on solving hard problems. In fact, we probably shouldn’t hear from them much—they’re too busy building the future.