How To Disrupt Petty Inconveniences

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Depending on who you ask, Jack Dorsey started off the latest Disrupt on either a very controversial or a very non-controversial note. “We need revolution, not disruption,” he said, words that would be easy to characterize as platitudes if he were not working hard at uprooting a few global institutions. Even so, the sentiment did not entirely match the tone of the conference that was to follow.

Whether you want to call it a bubble or not, it’s not controversial to say that there are millions upon millions of dollars going to ideas, services, and sites that will be dead or irrelevant in a year or two. The metaphor of the Cambrian explosion has been employed, of course. Tellingly, the Wikipedia article for it reads “most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies.” What a marvelously apt description of the creatures I saw on display this week!

A great number of the startups (a word that is beginning to lose all meaning, by the way) that I saw were aimed at solving problems so trifling that the first objective of many pitches was to alert the audience that they exist. Is this healthy? Yes and no.

A mixed bag

Now, I don’t want to slander the conference or the many interesting and promising startups that were also there, of course (really, there were a lot; the graphic above is mostly for satirical purposes). And this isn’t one of those occasional posts suggesting everyone quit their job and go volunteer in the Peace Corps. But those single-cell organisms were not some rare exception. I’m not going to lie; I frequently overheard pitches and product descriptions that made me fear for the sanity of the industry. Yet when I tried to argue (in an earlier draft of this article, in fact) against the existence of these grotesques, my reasoning faltered.

The thing about trying to establish the lunacy of location-based speed dating, or geofenced task lists, or voice-activated ticket purchases, or cloud-based lecture note marketplaces, is that there’s really nothing wrong with these ideas. No more, anyway, than with the millions of products and services that have fallen by the wayside over the last century — three-wheeled cars, BeOS, personal neck-cooling devices. Some disappear harmlessly, some are vindicated years later. At worst they are unnecessary, and at best they are ahead of their time.

And how will dating, or to-do lists, or buying tickets, or study groups, advance in this era of instant communication and dynamic networks, if not through the same things that have advanced everything from cave axes to particle physics: experimentation, mistakes, and the occasional total catastrophe? They won’t. Progress is like a jigsaw puzzle that extends forever, and occasionally something like the internet or iPhone drops a huge batch of new pieces on the table. The players start sorting, testing, and rearranging, and, like a real puzzle, a few false starts are to be expected.

So it’s not that small problems don’t need solving, or that the wrong problems are being solved. Then whence this instinctive disgust I felt, besides from my natural loathing of the conspicuously unnecessary?

Lazy architecture

Here’s the real problem: a lack of ambition.

I don’t mean pecuniary ambition. There was no shortage of that. You would think presenters were hosting an episode of Cosmos as they described the constellations of riches that are, they assured us, there for the taking. Billions and billions!

Nor is it that they think their product will have no effect. As usual, everything was a “revolutionary” new way to [fill in the blank]. (One company, very promising, actually, was in fact literally a revolutionary new way fill in the blank.)

No, it was their means that repelled me. The way so many were going about their job of fitting those puzzle pieces together. Instead of working diligently to assemble something truly worthwhile (a subjective judgment, to be sure, and I am calloused from long exposure, but let us be honest), they took two or three of the nearest pieces, or the latest ones to fall on the table, and mashed them into each other — making them “fit” the way a toddler might. Now, random recombination is a great way for evolution to occur over millions of years, but intelligent design it ain’t. It is depressing and distressing to see grown men and women approaching problems with such an unsophisticated and, frankly, opportunistic method.

I saw it in needless social integration, in feature bloat, in shoehorned API usage, and occasionally in a new phenomenon whereby the product itself seems to have been created in order to fit the constraints of the just-clever-enough portmanteau they chose for a name. Just because “location” kind of sounds like “Loc-Asian” doesn’t mean there should be a service that lets you find nearby Thai and Chinese food. Nor should you make “Fellaphone,” a service that solicits bids from local handymen for a designated task (I could make these up all day). And so on. These solutions to perceived needs are so rigidly constructed and precise that, like so many things on the web, their life is just a countdown to irrelevance.

It’s because I care so much about how technology and culture serve and affect one another that I find these chimaerical creations offensive. Of course I admire the craftsmanship they exhibit, but brickwork, no matter how neat, is only one aspect of the edifice. A poor idea may be handsomely executed, but criticism may still be directed at the architect.

I won’t belabor the point more. All I wanted to say was that there’s a specific disorder I saw on display, and hopefully we can treat it before it grows any worse. The experimentation must be done — but rationally, with tact and foresight. Not with the primitive zeal of an ape with a new bone.