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Aaron Greenspan

Aaron Greenspan

Posted: May 12, 2008 02:28 PM

A Wrinkle in Time


Time recently came out with its annual list of "the world's most influential people:" the Time 100. Though I tend to read newspapers more than news magazines, I took a glance through the names. Sadly, what I found was another manifestation of an insulated editorial mindset that pervades many media outlets today: that consumers are dumb. Most of the articles were either unsurprising, containing absolutely no new information about wealthy individuals who have been written about countless times, or shocking, in that they seemed completely out of place (Mariah Carey?) in a list of influential people. Influence can and often does require wealth, but one would think that with all of Time's resources, the magazine could find at least a hundred people across the globe who have influenced current affairs through some means other than their checkbooks.

The decision to have famous people write about other famous people made me particularly skeptical of the list's objectivity. I suppose I understand why Time's editors decided to ask prominent writers to contribute text about each one of the subjects. Rather than having the descriptions seem impartial and removed--much as one might expect in such a list--they likely wanted to impart a sense of exclusivity and intrigue. Who better than to write about the famous and powerful than those who know them well?

Apparently, the answer is, "those who don't know them well."

The first contributor one comes across when going through the list is none other than Deepak Chopra, who writes about the Dalai Lama. His may be a household name, but that doesn't mean it should be. Many well-regarded scientists consider Chopra's claims to be dubious, and even his connection to the Dalai Lama is tenuous: Chopra "has met the Dalai Lama several times," Time notes.

Other pairings were just too easy: Oprah Winfrey by Michelle Obama. Tony Blair by Bill Clinton. Larry Brilliant by Jimmy Carter. It would be more impressive to read about all of these people if the people doing the writing didn't have something to gain by being in the spotlight themselves, and if we could actually read the thoughts of those on the list as they themselves originally conceived them.

With these curiosities in mind, I decided to test my notion that Time's list mostly amounted to the rich and famous lauding one another's richness and famousness. I turned to the article about the one person on the list who I actually know: the CEO of Facebook, Inc. The short profile, written by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (who has earned my respect over the years), fell well within the range of what I expected. From the first statement, "The internet is about people connecting to people," which is admittedly one way of looking at it, but not the only way, it was clear his commentary was not going to break new ground. Predictably enough, Mr. Newmark said that Mark Zuckerberg had "expanded" our social networks through his "vision" and "building" of a "flexible information ecology."

Facebook is extremely popular, so perhaps he has, but again, that is only one way of looking at it. I see the rising influence of Facebook in a different light, one that has less to do with any unique attribute of its CEO, and more to do with three intimately inter-related phenomena that are far more influential than any one individual. The first is venture capital. The involvement of savvy venture capitalists who have many years of experience and many hundreds of millions of dollars behind them can make any company's leadership influential at the drop of a hat. The second is an obsessive media apparatus that uses the dollar sign as a proxy for quality and fixates on topics long after readers want to hear about them. Then, there is the natural economic logic of funding that pervades Silicon Valley: entrepreneurs gravitate towards working on technologies that will receive venture capitalists' attention and money. Ironically, venture capitalists often decide where to put their dollars based on what the media tells them is popular, which is in turn based on their own funding habits, and so there exists a natural mechanism for feedback loops to form and grow, until they become bubbles.

What's really too bad about this system--aside from it inevitably leading to economic catastrophe whenever bubbles happen to burst--is that when venture capitalists are distracted by the latest growing fad, they tend to ignore technologies that could actually lead to significant societal advances. It boggles my mind that the greatest achievements of Silicon Valley in the past five years amount to unprofitable web sites that let you idle away time on-line. Meanwhile, we have yet to solve very real, very pressing problems: for example, the ever-increasing amount of spam on the internet. Spam requires filters, filters require servers, servers require electricity, electricity requires oil, and there isn't going to be much more of that left in the near future. This particular problem and many, many others have been awaiting effective, large-scale solutions for years, but venture capitalists have mostly ignored them in anticipation of making a quick 10X return off of the next social network.

One might even say that venture capitalists are afraid of taking risks these days. The problems with e-mail cannot be solved through quick fixes such as filters because we've built the entire infrastructure on a fundamentally flawed system--but I have yet to meet a venture capitalist who is both willing to admit it and willing to invest in the creation of a better one.

Unfortunately for them, there probably won't be another big social network, so due to cowardice or extremely poor judgment, many millions of dollars are being wasted. Looking back over the past few decades, whatever makes the next astronomical return should be something new and different. I have a few ideas of my own in mind, but whatever it is, I'm looking forward to the day when that deal is signed, because it will mean that Time will have someone new from my generation to write about.

Aaron Greenspan is the author of the forthcoming Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.

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