Sugar Water

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Ten Lessons I Learned from Shark Tank

Almost none of the stuff on the radar of the Silicon Valley echo-chamber is innovative or solves any real human needs. They won’t cure anyone of disease, feed a child, improve the environment, or radically improve manufacturing…

Pinterest? Quora? Other social apps. It’s all a big distraction, it’s entertainment…

It’s all well and fine to pursue these avenues for making money. But don’t pretend there’s anything really innovative going on, that 50 years from now someone’s going to look back like we look back at Einstein, Darwin, or Newton and say ‘thanks’.”

That’s from a comment written by one Ray Cromwell, regarding a week-old TechCrunch post about Pinterest. I have to admit, it struck a chord. And I’m clearly not alone: lamentations re: the paucity of meaningful innovation in today’s Valley are growing increasingly common. PayPal founder Peter Thiel, in a recent interesting conversation with Francis Fukuyama, actually questions “whether we’re still living in a technologically advancing society at all.”

Pinterest is the pinup poster child for this kind of skepticism. Digital scrapbooking is hardly revolutionary, but it has become the flavor of the month, purely because of the money pouring into it, and its extraordinary traffic numbers:

Of course! you may say. So what? It’s incredibly popular and it’s raised a ton of money. Why shouldn’t it be getting all the hype? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?

Well, call me a corny idealist, but — no. I like to imagine that the Valley is a little better than that. We in the tech world like to look down our noses at Wall Street and Hollywood. After all, we invent the future! But if money and popularity are our only criteria for success, then are we really any different? Shouldn’t we care more about game-changing, world-changing, and real innovation? And shouldn’t we care less about sites and services that don’t have any real prospect of any of the above?

That’s why I’m still fond of Google, for all the flak they’ve taken of late. Love or hate their far-out projects like augmented-reality goggles and self-driving cars, you can’t complain that they’re not trying to change the world. Again. Just as Apple has, and Facebook has, and Twitter.

But Pinterest? Don’t get me wrong, they’re a great service, and may yet grow into a great business. But I can’t see them becoming something that actually matters.

Steve Jobs famously convinced John Sculley, then the CEO of Pepsi, to come join Apple with the pitch “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Well, that was then. Of course, there are still people out there trying to do more than lure a huge audience and make a lot of money. Elon Musk leaps to mind. But I’m finding it hard to shake the sense that the Valley has become a frothy sea of sugar water, interrupted only occasionally by islands of meaningful innovation.

Image credit: parl, Flickr