Technological Optimism

In the land of massive generalizations, there are two ways to look at the current crop of startups: with technological optimism or through the filter of business model incrementalism:

  • In the former, an employee/investor/customer looks at the project and thinks: "does this fit in my wildly optimistic science fiction infused model of the world?" or more simply: "could this be part of the future I want?" Generally speaking it is a geek ethos that is developed through tinkering and careful study of scifi cannons like the novels of Neil Stephenson and Star Trek TNG. A dose of determinism is broadly applied as "technology will make all things better in time." Most interestingly, it is this mode of looking at the world that often results in people who see what most do not when the venture is young and looks small and irrelevant.

  • Business model incrementalism is not quite the opposite. Rather it is rooted in a very mechanical form of "pattern matching." It goes something like this: "I've seen this work in transportation; therefore with any suitably fragmented supply base where the underlying asset is rarely fully utilized, it should work. Uber for cement mixers FTW!" I am convinced that business model optimism is steeped in American Business education and empowered by the twin forces of being told over and over that you can outthink everyone else through proper analysis and the certainty and ease with which one can recalcuate rows in a spreadsheet. Performed at a high level and by a very intelligent person it can be quite helpful but in most cases, it is a potato peeler in the hands of a two year old.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of both of these modes of thinking while thoroughly enjoying Season 1 of Breaking Smart by Venkat Rao, an ode to technological optimism that is a breath of fresh air at a time when most conversations are so thoroughly centered on business model incrementalism (in fact, I can't stop recommending particular essays to people at the end of meetings, always a good sign). Not all of the pieces will have the broad appeal but they do mix technology, economics, cultural analysis, and history in a wonderful ice cream swirly of technological optimism that is worth consuming in as few sittings as possible, particularly amidst the recent macro stutters that are being interpreted by some as a meltdown.

Thank you Venkat!