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Michael Rosenblum Headshot

Empire of the Air

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I have been having a lot of fun with my Oculus Rifts.

They let you mess around in a 3D virtual world.

When I was a kid we had Viewmaster. These were a plastic viewer that you dropped a wheel of slides into and they gave you a 3D view of places like Paris or Disneyland or Cape Canaveral.

The Oculus Rift is a lot like that, except it's digital.

Fun.. for about a half hour. Maybe less.

So I was a bit astonished to see that Facebook had paid a staggering (well, maybe nothing is staggering these days) $2 billion for this electronic Viewmaster thing.

Because you can buy a pretty cool red Viewmaster with a whole collection of slides on eBay for $11.95

So for $2 billion you could buy 167 million Viewmasters. Enough to give one to every family in America and still have a lot left over (maybe for England and Germany?)

This was astonishing, but not nearly as astonishing as Facebook's purchase of Whatsapp (which I had never eve heard of) for a staggering $19 billion.

There's a lot of chatter lately about income distribution (or lack of it), some of it driven by Thomas Piketty's new book, 'Capital'. About how wealth is getting concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Some people are making an analogy to The Guilded Age, when the arrival of the Industrial Revolution also put great wealth into the hands of a few smart people.

There's a difference though, and it speaks volumes, sadly, about the kind of culture we are, or we are becoming.

If we look at the biggest success stories of the last time there was a Guilded Age, we get John D. Rockefeller (the world's first billionaire); Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt. These men also amassed massive fortunes (largely in an era before income tax yet!), but what they built! The oil industry is the foundation of pretty much everything we do today, of the way that we live, of the food that we eat, of how we travel, power our homes and businesses. The steel industry. The automobile. The railways.

These were industries that were real.

What are our 'industries' today?

Facebook.
Instagram
Snapchat
Twitter
Oculus Rift

Are these really 'industries'?

Is there anything real here? Anything of substance? Anything that compares in any way to a Standard Oil or a Ford or a United States Steel?

We are creating a world made out of air.

Air

A civilization increasingly built on nothing but hot air.

It is not so much the disparity between wealth and the middle class that worries me so much; it is the things that we consider of value.

Twitter.

You can't eat it
You can't wear it
You can't do much of anything with it.

But my favorite it Snapchat
After a few seconds, it disappears completely.
Sort of a metaphor for the whole lot of them.
Just speeded up a bit.

 
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