Rob May Is Wrong

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I read Rob May’s post on Venture Beat over the weekend. The general thrust is this – the internet kills innovation because everyone in tech is part of a self-selecting club. We wear the same pants, all have the same phone, like the same stuff, therefore the culture and viewpoint of the tech community is fixed and unchanging.
There is an argument to be made around insular communities driving self-reinforcing beliefs. Political parties, religions, and cults all require some agreement on fundamental values and world-views before you join. They then give you a world-view that reinforces their premise. So, sure, they can be limiting because they force you to think about things from a particular viewpoint. Tech can be insular, too. Check out Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble (and I wrote about this book here). Basically, Google watches what you click on and feeds you more stuff like it, so if you are liberal, you see more liberal leaning content, etc. That can be insular, too.
But Rob, to say that the internet is killing innovation is just this side of silly. The internet has made our world more connected. And you are right, connectedness breeds cultural cross-contamination. But that is the nature of human interaction. It has happened for hundreds of thousands of years. Languages, religions, fashions and political beliefs have spread over the world and given different cultures a common place to engage. When ideas and beliefs spread, they change both the converted and the evangelist.
You say that we’ve homogenized the startup culture – you may be right in a superficial way. Homogenization doesn’t mean that innovation is dead, it just means that you have to look a little more closely to see the variations in community and culture that rest beneath the obvious surface similarities. Because we all speak English (language is a very homogenizing force) US/UK/AUS aren’t the same – and Spain and Mexico could hardly be more different.
What you call homogenized, I call connected. So, yeah, tech folks may all have iPhones and think about artisanal foods, but we are connected in those commonalities. Those commonalities allow us to discuss those things that are dissimilar in our approach – and that is where innovation comes from. You and I both wear glasses and have facial hair – and you are in Cambridge, MA and I am in Arlington, MA. It seems like we would be the same, then. Homogeneous, even. I bet we aren’t.
So, forget about dismissing the internet as a force that kills innovation. Forget about surface homogenization as a crushing blow to ingenuity. Forget haircuts, forget phones and focus on the particular set of experiences and emotional influences that you brought to this very moment. They are the fuel that powers disruptive thinking – not what kind of restaurants you frequent. You have confused social trends and proclivities for thinking.
Let’s have lunch sometime – somewhere outside of Kendall Sq – you know – in the real world 😉

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