As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Dan Hon has been killing it lately with his daily dispatches. Here’s a clip from yesterday that really spoke to something that’s been bugging me for a while now:
“In the continuing series of ‘can these guys really be serious,’ Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt took to the stage at SXSW a few days ago in what I can only assume to be a personal attempt to make sure that our outrage toward the Californian Ideology never dies down… Anyway: Schmidt was unrelenting - the solution to the inequality the first world countries are currently experiencing is, obviously, more capitalism, less regulation and more education. The end goal of this? So that every man, woman and child may be the captain of their own startup, hustling and growth-hacking their way to better living conditions for all. We are all entrepreneurs, all disrupting, all tirelessly laboring…”
“Can these guys really be serious.” I’ve had that exact thought. Here is Schmidt himself:
“Ninety-nine percent of people have seen no economic improvement over the last decade…the data suggest that the problem gets worse [and will become the] number one issue in democracies around the world…”
“When you look at the solutions to the problems that you’re describing, which ultimately lead to severe joblessness, they all involve creating fast-growth startups.”
Here’s my problem with this vision. It starts with the capitalist fairy tale of the startup. Innovation! Some seductive genius comes up with something new and persuades people to give their money or time to turn it into a company. Then, disruption! The seductive genius turns into aggressive genius and topples the Goliath we all assume is the be-all-and-end-all version of whatever. It seems that Schmidt’s (and not just him, to be fair) recipe for economic stability is a relatively simple one: Innovate, disrupt, repeat. But it’s an inherently contradictory one. He’s talking about a solution to economic disparity and instability that is, at its core, about instability. That’s what disruption is!
But backing up for a moment.
If the goal is for everyone to be an entrepreneur, that’s not going to work, because someone has to work for someone else (duh) and not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that for goodness sake! So startup worship and entrepreneur worship is not great for people insofar as it’s prone to make many people feel like they’re not doing what they should be doing.
But say that is what we strive for nonetheless. That’s where disruption gets problematic. There’s a finite amount of time and stuff out there, so if we’re pushing toward more disruption, then how do we avoid a situation in which just when something gets established, it gets disrupted? I mean, at a certain point, that sounds a whole lot like irrational and constant war to me. And the problem with war is that there are always two losers: the people who lose the war, and the people who lose everything else by collateral damage. When I was a kid playing Civilization, I found warfare to be incredibly annoying because just when you’d built up a city to be thriving and interesting, some aggressor would come along and lay siege to it. If you lost the battle, the city would become theirs. Of course, there’d be plenty of damage and loss in the process. But then, because you’re prideful and stupid, you’d lay siege and “liberate” your city. Say you got it back. Then, it’d be smaller and even more broken. This cycle might repeat again and again until finally, the last battle would end and there’d be no more city. Just a bunch of smoking rubble. I always felt like the game was laughing at me when that happened. Like, “DO YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS, LARRY?!?”
So how is that not the outcome of this sort of hypercaptitalism that our culture seems to be pushing toward? A constant cycle of toppling one fragile little thing after another until eventually everyone throws their hands up and says, you know what? I’m heading for the hills. It’s been real.
And in the meantime, why do we celebrate all these little market battles as progress? When Uber comes along and leaves a ton of taxi drivers in the cold, why is that cause for celebration? We abstract the industry and say things like, “yeah that big dumb taxi industry had it coming I mean for real, I had to wave my arms or talk to a person to get a cab but now I can tap my iPhone this is so much better.” Then when we’re asked what those taxi drivers should do now that their little city is smoldering, we say something like, “well they should become Uber drivers!” Brilliant. And this is what passes for “innovation” and “disruption.”
I liked it better last time when it was called feudal warfare.