Double Hubble Bubble Trouble

OK, now I’m worried. Here’s why:

Lo these many years ago, in the long-gone spring of 1996, I set out to San Francisco to make my software fortune, armed with a freshly minted degree from Canada’s finest technical university. The second of the interviews I’d arranged via email — a radical notion, then — consisted mostly of playing Doom with my potential employers, but during the little time devoted to talk, I asked them: “Do you think this whole Internet boom is getting a little overhyped?”

The company’s CEO looked shocked, and said: “No way. First, my grandparents in Florida have still never heard of the Internet. Second, when they do, that’s when things are really going to boom.” He leaned closer, with the wide, wild eyes of a true believer. “Because the Internet changes everything, for everyone.”

They didn’t hire me. (I’ve never been good at first-person shooters.) Instead I wound up doing consulting work at the investment bank that led Netscape’s IPO, and rode the subsequent boom several times around the world. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was a giddy crazy time a lot like now. Because, you see —

Every tech bubble needs a narrative. A guiding myth, if you will. A tale that gives otherwise intelligent people good reason to be irrationally exuberant. The dot-com bubble had “The Internet Changes Everything, For Everyone!” Well, this burgeoning new bubble now has a myth of its own: Marc Andreessen’s “Software Is Eating The World.”

Consider these surreal quotes from The Rise of Developeronomics by Venkatesh Rao at Forbes: “The one absolutely solid place to store your capital today … is in software developers’ wallets,” “if you have money and you happen to find a talented developer who seems to like you and wants to work with you, you should give him/her your money to build something, anything … if you don’t have money, you should offer up whatever other kind of surplus you do have,” “software is now the core function of every company, no matter what it makes or what service it actually provides.” If that isn’t a bubble mentality, I don’t know what is.

Now, as quite a good software engineer myself, I’d certainly like this to be true. And Rao isn’t the only one saying it: even slightly less starry-eyed media are beginning to sound like the choir to his solo. The New York Times refers to “the steady march of that most protean of technologies — computing — as it makes further inroads into every scientific discipline and industry.” The Wall Street Journal says “computer programming continues to gain allure and relevance amid the rise of mainstream tech companies like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. and almost every industry going digital.”

I want to make it clear that I am not actually disagreeing with any of those statements. Software is eating the world. The Internet is changing everything, for everyone.

But these sea changes don’t happen anywhere near as fast as true believers think. “Tech bubble” has two meanings: ‘excessive valuation waiting to be popped,’ yes, but also ‘the distorting membrane inside which the tech world lives.’ Within it we surf exponentially ever faster, fuelled by Moore’s Law (while it lasts), but we also suffer from what I call “Moore’s Lens”: like the first, flawed Hubble Telescope, our perspective is skewed. In particular, we tend to think the rest of the world can and will change as fast as the the tech world does. It ain’t so.

Even when those changes do come, they never happen the way the believers expect. If in 1999 you had told a dot-commer that a tech company would be the most valuable publicly traded company in the world twelve years hence, they would have nodded of-course–but if you had told them it would be Apple, they would have laughed at you pityingly.

Furthermore, it’s weird and disconcerting to think of software-eating-the-world as some kind of endgame. On the contrary: as Neal Stephenson says, “Let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things … We can’t Facebook our way out of the current economic status quo.” Shades of Peter Thiel and Max Levchin decrying the current state of innovation in the world today at Disrupt SF. Software won’t eat the world tomorrow, and even if it does, that won’t automatically make anything better. Anyone who tells you differently is living in a bubble.

Image credit: NASA Goddard, Flickr.