At the closing of the decade many tech writers take a step back and contemplate what it has brought us. Such as one of my favourite writers Steven Levy does in this, yet again, insightful Wired article. The main theme across these articles is that falling of the tech heroes. Or to be more precise, the tech startup heroes. Starting the decade with lofty promises of a ‘better world through startups’, they ended up defending themselves in court because it turned out they made the world a worse place. Surely they created valuable services, albeit most of them did nothing more than aggregating supply and make it somewhat easier accessible for the demand side, but it turned out the upside is greatly outweighed by the downside. We got excellent search but paid with our privacy, we got tons of news sources but they turned out to be untrustworthy, we got many free services but lost control of how and where we spend our attention. This list can go on for quite some time. And I think the root of this all is a misunderstanding about the fundamental motive of any company.
Although I am the first to cheer any effort to make our world a better place, I’ve also been quite skeptical of the deranged startup culture where ‘make the world a better place’ was nothing more than a checkbox on a list meant for luring investors. The web is littered with startups offering simple consumer products or services that do nothing for the world at large. Au contraire. But still that is what is on their front page. It is a red herring and the root to the downfall of the tech startup hero. In the end companies have to make money to survive. Despite all the other goals it might have, once this goal is endangered all other goals fly out of the window without a second thought. Every action within a company is therefore mainly aimed at maximising profit. While companies have the winds in their back they have the means to obscure this fact, but once the tide turns and the wind and rain is in their face the truth will surface. And I am not saying it is an ugly truth, but covering it up with a misleading message is kinda ugly. Looking at Zuckerberg testifying before congress you can see the crack appear in realtime. And his company is just the highest tree in a forest of wannatrees.
Tech startups are not companies with magic powers for solving world problems that takes a lot more than just tech, cola & pizza’s, and a can-do attitude. Technology can be an amazing enabler of progress, but it never acts in a vacuum. For the coming decade I plea for a bit more realism. And for every non-tech organisation to jump off of the tech-hero bandwagon and stop misusing words like ‘hackathon, nerd, startup, AI, blockchain, …’ to make themselves look cool. You should not pretend to be what you are not. Just look at the current state of the tech startup industry why not.