Social Choice

I recently attended a panel discussion at CNET/CBS, moderated by my friend Paul Sloan. The topic was start-up funding.  The panel consisted of Naval Ravikant, Dave McClure and George Zachary.  The audience was mostly guys (few women) either in the early stages of a start-up, or hopefully launching an idea into a reality.  The best answer I heard to the many questions about how seed funding decisions get made was Naval’s “Surprise me.”

The discussion inevitably turned to Facebook’s IPO.  The consensus was that a rising tide lifts all ships, with the result that the hype and capital infusion would stimulate more start-up investment.  Then, Naval R remarked, “who really uses Facebook anymore?”  Serious people have moved on to Twitter and Pinterest, leaving Facebook for kids, housewives, and, by implication, the non-serious.  While I’m sure this would be a surprise to Mr. Zuckerberg and his investors–no doubt adding millions of users around the globe as this panel discussion progressed–I wonder if there isn’t some truth to what Naval had to say.  Natural selection is relentless.

Look at the trouble Groupon is in.  It seems like only months ago the site was the darling of the web, ushering in an entirely new platform for promotion and commerce.  It may now fall by the wayside, and I for one won’t miss it.  The promise of engendering repeat purchase and long term customer loyalty was always a false, untested proposition.  Rapaciously marketed to small and medium businesses, it proved to be a money loser at best and often a death knell.

I bought a Groupon once, an offer to get $60.00 of merchandise for $20.00 at a single proprietor, high end pharmacy in my neighborhood.  The place sells expensive European products.  I figured how could I go wrong, so with my offer I went in, selected my purchases and paid with the Groupon.  I asked the woman at the counter, who turned out to be the owner, how this deal was working for her.  She said, “It’s the worst business decision I’ve ever made.  I’ve lost so much money and haven’t ever seen anyone return to the shop.”  It’s a common story.  How rueful Groupon’s founders must be for not having accepted Google’s offer (and how happy Google must be that they didn’t.)

All of the social platforms we use today will be replaced in time, some sooner than later.

Despite the many frustrations, and often against my private instincts, I engage because part of being alive is to live on the wave, not be stuck on some retaining wall.  Yes, privacy is sacrificed; hacking is a nuisance; our keystrokes are aggregated and repackaged for marketing initiatives; the government conducts surveillance; Big Brother is watching.  But what, today, is the alternative?  I have a young friend, a college student, who is mortally against all forms of online sharing: no Facebook, no Twitter, no use of Google search, no downloading, no YouTube, no Netflix…  Gmail is a necessary evil.  He wears a specially protected wallet to prevent possible RFID scans.  He also attends Defcon and supports Julian Assauge.  His seemingly contradictory career goal is to work at Twitter in their security department.  To me, he has narrowed his worldview to a degree I find depressing and ultimately uninteresting.  Maybe he’ll turn out to be right and I will be on the losing side of the battle for personal integrity and privacy.  When “they” come, they’ll get me long before him.

In the meantime, we’re here to explore and evolve. And not be fearful of unknown destinations.  There’s too much uncertainly even to hope of controlling outcomes.

I come back again and again to the final passage of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen.  I’ve quoted this before.

Margrethe And sooner or later there will come a time when all our children are laid to dust, and all our children’s children.

Bohr When no more decisions, great or small, are ever made again. When there’s no more uncertainty, because there’s no more knowledge.

Margrethe And when all our eyes are closed, when even the ghosts have gone, what will be left of our beloved world? Our ruined and dishonoured and beloved world?

Heisenberg But in the meanwhile, in this most precious meanwhile, there it is. The trees in Faelled Park. Gammertingen and Biberach and Mindelheim. Our children and our children’s children. Preserved, just possibly, by that one short moment in Copenhagen. By some event that will never quite be located or defined. By that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.

I read this and think about my sons and the world they’re inheriting.  They have a lot more optimism than I do, believing that when the really bad times come, there will be a solution.  Science has saved the human race before and will again.  No doubt rational forces will eventually win out in this country to replace the bigotry, self-delusion in the name of faith, anti-science, anti-women, anti-education populist beliefs that seem to be sweeping much of the nation.  After all, National Socialism had its downfall.

Many believe, Malcolm Gladwell notwithstanding, that social media has played a role in advancing social change.  Like wildfire, people get connected, informed, mobilized and united in common cause.  In retaliation, repressive regimes shut down social media portals, as has recently been the case in China.  The power of social platforms, such as Twitter, is recognized, understood and feared.  Just as marketing has shifted from the hands of manufacturers to the hands, and opinions, of consumers, politics is shifting from centralized control to decentralized communities of citizens.

Would we rather be part of these movements, or isolated in our own fears of lack of privacy and personal control?  “With Privilege Comes Responsibility.”  There will always be the irresponsible, the hackers of the free world.  And there will be those irresponsible to the status quo who will carry huge responsibility.  (Wikileaks may be one.)

Fear versus potential.  You’ve got to choose.

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