Yesterday, Jon Evans posts to TechCrunch that Silicon Valley is selling sugar water; that real innovation is few & far between, and too many folks are getting caught up in startups that “don’t matter” (his example, Pinterest)
Oddly, as someone doing an education startup, I disagree with Evans.
While it’s true there are many-many more startups focusing on ‘social-mobile-local-photo-gaming’ apps than I care for, it’s a mistake to call them meaningless in the same way it would be a mistake to call human culture meaningless.
Along that analogy, a brief evolution of culture: (with a nod to Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near”):
Billions of years were 'invested’ into the perfection of DNA and single-celled organisms, then a billion more into multi-cellular organisms, followed by a half billion into vertebrates, a couple million into man-apes, 200,000 years into humans, and 10,000 years into modern culture (source).
The vast bulk of our evolution was invested in infrastructure; amazing, enabling infrastructure, the legos that allow us to do what? To talk to one another, play games with one another, to love & care, and many other social/cultural activities that we take for granted, but were evolved because society & culture have made us a more 'survivable’ organism. Are any of us truly angry we didn’t skip the culture phase and continue on to evolve amor-hides, prehensile tails, bat-wings, and night vision? (as cool as those might be).
Well, computers and the internet are paralleling our evolution nicely. Thousands of years invested into logic and mathematics, hundreds of years into machining and industrial infrastructure, decades into circuit boards & CPUs, a few more decades into network connectivity & wireless.
And what are we doing with it now? We’re layering in social and culture, and holding off on the armor-hide and night-vision technology. And though it’d be difficult for me to claim Pinterest makes us more 'survivable’, itself & startups like it, the ones that 'stick’ and get traction, are forming the basis for the next evolution of online-culture.
What if a character of 'meaningless’ Greek mythology, Icarus, inspired mankind to pursue flight and invent aviation? What if a meaningless Pinterest pin-board inspires someone to follow a new dream?
In more ways than Evans appreciates, traction of 'sugar-water’ apps says something meaningful about how we’re re-positioning the pinnacle of evolution, human culture, into the digital. What world-changing ideas will flow from those apps is anyone’s guess, but when ANY of those sites connect the next pair of entrepreneurs to create the next 'big thing’, the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment will have been worth it.
How many folks thought email originally a stupid diversion? How many parents still think so now? But how many founders of meaningful companies first connected over email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Don’t knock 'meaningless’ apps as taking startup-world sidewise, we just can’t see the forest for the trees yet and as culture becomes increasingly digital.