Startups, Energy and Society’s Issues

I was in Austin last month for RailsConf. One of the keynote speakers was David Cohen of TechStars. He talked about startups. (I don’t feel like watching the whole thing again, so I will go from notes and memory.)

Granted, this was RailsConf. Rails is used for webapps, and it would be silly to model nuclear fusion with a Rails app. But if you accept my premise that a lot of what is going on in the technology space these days is useless and does not solve society’s long-term problems (like climate change and peak oil), then a lot of what he said was just more of the same silliness.

At one point he said that he actually knows investors who did not put money into Pinterest! Can you believe it???? Actually, yes, I can. I don’t know why anybody uses it to begin with. He advised people against getting funding too early, and I have to give him some props for that, since he is a VC. It takes a big man to give people advice that benefits the questioner and not himself.

But it was more of the web-payments-this, social-something-or-other-that, startups-uber-alles for the win. He is another example of the Bias Against Big. A lot of people these days do not trust Big Government or Big Corporations, or both. Institutions do fail and make mistakes. Corporations make promises to governments and taxpayers, and then renege. But as was pointed out in the now-defunct “Inside Renewable Energy” podcast, a lot of people are buying into the startup mythology.

I am not saying that startups should not be encouraged. But a lot of people, even some governments, seem to be betting on startups. A lot of people seem to think that startups will solve all of society’s problems. As was mentioned on “Inside Renewable Energy”, a lot of this may be due to IT. A lot of successful companies that went on to make billions were started by two guys in a garage or a dorm room: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook. And a lot of people think that “two guys in a room” will come up with ways to solve our energy problems.

But will two guys in a dorm room figure out how to design and build the next generation of nuclear reactor? Will a couple of guys drop out of grad school, rent a small space, and figure out how to store solar energy and transmit it across continents? I think that, whether we like it or not, corporations and government (including the military) will have to be involved in all of this. I think there needs to be some pushback against the “startupification” of the USA.

We need to stop thinking that the way to fame and fortune is through whatever some VC in “the valley” can take public. 30 to 40 years ago, guys would go to college to get degrees in engineering so they could design rockets to send men to the moon. Now people think the way to success is to drop out of college to make yet another social network, or build even more games that are played on a three-inch screen.

What is bringing success to the valley is not really doing a lot for the rest of California, let alone the rest of the country. High tech jobs in the valley do not create as many jobs in other sectors as high tech jobs in other states. Part of this is due to geography (lots of mountains in California limit what can be built), and part of it is the tunnel vision.

Abu Dhabi, which makes a LOT of money from oil, is building a city that will run on solar energy. At least that’s the plan. I think this is the sort of thing that should be done in this country. If you think the answer is to simply “Drill, baby, drill”, then explain why an oil exporter is preparing a city that will not use any oil. At some point there will be nothing left to drill. What happens then?

Speaking of the world gone wrong, Facebook went public last week. It looks like the stock is not doing as well as people hoped. Why anybody cared about this company is beyond me. Facebook is really just a big email client. Except instead of the spam landing in your Inbox, they put it on the side and called it a business model.

In the IPO letter, Suckerberg wrote that “If we want to have the biggest impact, the best way to do this is to make sure we always focus on solving the most important problems.” What does he regard as important problems? Making sure the lights are still on and the trains are still running in twenty years, or figuring out how to sell you more junk?

Image from Wikipedia

Post created on 2012-05-21_14:52:40, last modified on 2018-02-08_23:54:23

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