Tech Community Worthless to Economic Recovery

One of the most notable things about the dot com bubble burst is that the innovations and technologies established in the late 90s and early 2000s spurned the comeback of the economy and the establishment of a new economy of business and internet value. We called it, for better or for worse, Web 2.0 and it was marked by stark innovations in human interaction driven largely by the glut of bandwidth provided by undersea cables laid in the 90s. The technology that, arguably, caused the downturn that resulted in so many dot-com bombs, became the impetus for a new generation of business and spending.

Unfortunately, this new generation of internet technology, technologists and startups is so far not demonstrating any ability to lay the groundwork for the economic recovery and innovation. Instead, we continue to focus on “teh Twitter”, and marketing gimmicks played out by celebrities like Ashtun Kutcher and Oprah. We talk about the new look and feel of Friendfeed, seen Friendfeed focusing on making what we know better, but ignoring the very impetus for economic recovery proven time again – innovation. Something new. Something radical. Something that challenges the basis of the cultural and societal problems in existence that generate the economic problems affecting everyone, not just a subset of the population existing in a subset of the worlds geography.

In the 1930s, the United States (and by proxy, the world) faced the worst economic crisis in modern history (one could make the argument that the Dark Ages were actually centuries old and worse than anything generated by modern economic recessions). It wasn’t until society was forced to innovate, via programs instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt, that the economy began to recover.

Silicon Valley, as bubble-like as it is, has been the center of innovation in the technology world, for several economic cycles now. In every case in the past 20 years, the impetus for technology growth and recovery, can be categorized by new ideas, new companies doing new things. They don’t rehash the same cycles. They haven’t focused on the same ideas. They start over building from the plateau left from the cycle before – utilizing prior technologies and developing completely new things.

This is innovation and this is not what is happening in this cycle. Instead, the technology world talks about celebrity races to 1 Million Twitter followers. They talk about the mainstream adoption of these technologies. We live in years of yore, still conversing about how Obama won the White House using social media – as if that fact will somehow change our world.

We still talk about advertising on blogs, as if advertising sales are somehow going to spur economic recovery, despite a regression in advertising spending across the board. We still build companies based on an idea that free is a valuable asset.

BREAKING NEWS: The economy spins out of control while people keep spinning stupid ideas worthy of 2001.

It’s time to get smart about business. It’s time to start applying the entrepreneurial spirit that we claim as important to our culture. It’s time for the technology community to actually be important to the economy. It’s time to stop expecting that the President will call upon us as a community of change and innovation, when all we can do is talk about publicity stunts by celebrities.

Grow up, people. Get real about making a difference. Maybe we can actually get this country and this world moving again if we stop being stupid. Maybe. We are not necessarily the chosen ones. That right must be earned.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

16 thoughts on “Tech Community Worthless to Economic Recovery

  1. I agree with much of what you’re saying. I’m kind of sick of hearing about Ashton Kutcher and all the celebrity junk that is going around. Although I do believe we’ve hit a barrier. Hopefully someone will eventually break us out of that barrier, but for now we’re stuck. Being an entrepreneur means that you’re will to take risks and come up with radical new ideas. When Digg came out, we had new concept, when Twitter came out, we had a new concept, but a lot of what I’m seeing now is the same idea rehashed a bunch of different ways.

    It seems as if all the itches have been scratched and there is no where left to turn. I think what we need in the tech sector is not just mere innovation, but a revolutionary change. We need to look beyond the existing technologies and come up with something that is new. Obviously it’s untested, but that’s the entrepreneurial spirit. Bill Gates didn’t know what was going to happen, Steven Jobs didn’t know either, but they built their dreams and we got this personal computer revolution out of it.

    Maybe I’m just muttering inane nonsense, but I do believe strongly that the only way for the tech sector to help is to cut through all that already exists and come up with something new.

  2. Actually I couldn’t disagree more.

    In order to create economic value, first we have to create what we call “intangible assets” in the sense of social capital, knowledge, health, etc. (For support on this, see in particular the work of Baruch Lev at NYU (Stern School).

    What web 2.0 is doing is facilitating the creation of those intangible assets.

    Sure it’s also doing things like glorifying pretty celebrities, but overall there is genuine importance.

    The overall economic growth payoff will be lagging a bit, say a few years. But if we don’t create these building blocks now, we won’t have economic growth later.

    As to your specific point about advertising: I’m the Director of Communities at thegroupery.com and one of the things we’re doing as a socially entrepreneurial company is looking how to rebuild relationships between local businesses and the non-profit groups (e.g. PTAs) that they support. That’s not really advertising, it’s sponsorship; but the effect is similar: Billy’s dad runs a restaurant. Tiffany’s mom does bookkeeping. Sam’s parents own the local pet groomer’s.

    -Jessica Margolin

  3. Not everyone is focused on Twitter and not all technology start-ups are gimmicky web ideas. There are enterprise software start-ups that no one hears about and medical technology start-ups that never make it to TechCrunch – they aren’t thinking about Twitter.

  4. Love the article! I do want to highlight in this article, ‘tech’ sector or community in this case has to do with the realms of web software, social software, internet only/armchair tech, and not bio-, nano-, green- etc.

  5. I think there are many ‘green initiatives’ that could really create growth in the tech sector.
    One such is the dot tel directory: allowing innovative use of the DNS, creating a webless directory which could radically decrease the use of printed directories and yellow pages.
    Mentioned just last night on 60 minutes, the ‘cold fusion’ batteries which could power the next generations.
    We just need to uncloak all that great ‘alien’ tech the gov. is sitting on : )

  6. Agreed, but at the same time media hoopla and ridiculous rockstar antics have been a part of the industry since the 70s. Once internet and computer tech hit the mainstream, mainstream concerns (like celebrity following) naturally become a part of the tech discourse, and since there are more “normal” people than tech geeks in the stream, those concerns become louder than straight tech talk.

    As far as true innovation, I think it is still going on, but it gets buried beneath features meant to make the mainstream people feel comfortable. Truly new ideas, however they stimulate the economy in the long run, aren’t generally accepted by the mainstream when they are introduced.

  7. Interesting post, the internet is still in it’s infancy. Like anything, proven things from the past will be reproduced by imitators more and more, then unique ideas and innovations will spring up and succeed… People are big on two things. Recognition and money, therefore – if people are making money online they are succeeding… Innovation only propels technologies and benchmarks forward at a faster pace, and I am sure we could be more innovative than we are – but, in the last 20 years we have moved forward at a faster pace when it comes to technology – then we have in the past thousand years.

    With that said, I agree that the more creative we are the better we can stimulate our economy and improve our overall power as a country and world, and we need to be smart and talented to do so. We should never rely on a president to fix everything, they are in charge of signing bills in to law, protecting our country and providing oversight to citizen’s personal needs – but it’s up to us – the citizens to decide whether our economy succeeds… If we are all lazy and not innovative, we will go nowhere. If we are more creative, talented and entrepreneurial – we will go to the moon

  8. Roosevelt? Innovated? Please. His biggest innovation was threatening to pack the Supreme Court when they ruled his New Deal programs unconstitutional (they were, and are.)

    Recycled Marxism is not innovation, nor is Keyensianism innovative today. Not all innovation is obvious right away, nor is it always useful until coupled creatively with other, later innovation (building blocks, above.)

    Patience. Tech will deliver. It always does, given a chance.

  9. I couldn’t agree with you more, Aaron.

    If I had the time I’d organize a BarCamp with the theme “No one cares about your crappy web app!” and further drive home the idea that what we need right now is not more followers, friends and twitter clones, but pure unfettered INNOVATION.

    Many budding web entrepreneurs come to every month for insight into what they’re working on and 99% of the time I tell them “No one will care. You’re planning to build a crappy web app that won’t change any one’s lives.” The other 1% I introduce to really smart people and investors who can make their dreams come true.

    rant

    1. The problem with a BarCamp oriented around this idea is that BarCamp has become like every other unconference, including (I add with some trepidation) my own WordCamp Mid-Atlantic (at least it might be like every other unconference, but hopefully not). It becomes yet another event oriented around the same promotion of the same technologies that do the same thing in a different way. I have not seen or heard of an event of it’s type that advociates, and sees through to the end actual innovation outside of Startup Weekend.

  10. Is it possible that, just like in the 90s, we can’t yet see the impact of our newer advances will have to stimulate next year’s economy? As silly / stupid / simple as ‘teh Twitter’ is, to me it seems the mainstream uptake of microblogging has already had some dramatic effects on speed of communication, lower cost of publishing and consumption of data, and accessibility between broadcasters of all types (advertisers included) and their audiences.

    Your most recent post points out the ‘execute’ part of the web equation in relation to the technology being created in the past few years. Do you think it is possible that this type of modular information dissemination could possibly play a role in our economic recovery?

    It’s kinda like laying cables in the 90s. Most people probably second guessed it the moment the bubble burst, and maybe even accused technology (possibly rightfully so) for our economic woes in the early 90s. Right now a lot of this probably looks like we are wasting our time on shiny new toys instead of fixing the broken plumbing, but sometimes even frivolous innovation bears fruit that is usable in the years to come. Big spenders like Hoover, Reagan, and others pissed off the world, until everybody realized how much we benefited from those expenses later down the road. Think Hoover Damn, NASA, Space Wars, etc. All ended up having game changing implications down the road that were not realized in the generation they were developed.

    I’m hoping and thinking that, the shiny toys we develop now will lay the ground work for some more game changing, economy quickening innovation that will benefit our kids.

    Of course, this is just speculation. But I think our hyper connectivity and granularity might end up being a big asset in speeding up economic recovery once some of our broken bones mend from the housing and finance fiasco. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but at least it helps me sleep at night. :-)

  11. Great conversation. The Internet needs more of this. How we use are resources and the questions that we ask are more important than the hype and the noise that seems to crowd out solid solutions to problems.

  12. Although I love how the Internet has opened up the world to many people, in some ways it has caused some of the economic troubles that America now faces. I think that it has contributed to much of the outsourcing of good paying jobs to other countries. Yes, I agree that the other countries need good paying jobs, yet we need good paying jobs here too! Unemployment and underemployment are going to continue, and it needs to be addressed. It has come to the point where too many Americans don’t have the money to buy the goods that they used to be able to buy without even blinking an eye.

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