Both the New York Times magazine and The New Republic did articles on the unnervingly youthful aspect of the most recent tech boom/bubble, and each piece had someone making the argument that you need the people the kids on Tumblr refer to as "the olds" because, presumable, the olds know what matters.
The NYT article framed it in terms of missing big opportunity to build substantial industries:
In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests.
Which, really, is the Levi Strauss model: Don't expect to get rich panning for gold. Get rich getting the goldbugs to buy your stuff.
But what has tugged at the back of my brain is this passage from the New Republic piece:
When taken to its logical extreme, a tech sector that discriminates in favor of the young might produce an economy with some revolutionary ways of keeping ourselves entertained and in touch at all hours of the day and night. But it would be an economy that shortchanged other essential sectors, like, say, biotech or health care.
In my day job, I have a colleague who spends a lot of time following health care and IT, because he is a smart guy and he has said, "There is a 2015 deadline for a federally-mandated national electronic health records (EHR) system. The standards being pushed by the Health and Human Services Dept. are different from how most healthcare companies in America prefer to operate. It should be interesting to see what happens when the irresistable force meets the immovable object here."
The sheer scope and breadth of what he's looking at is insanely daunting, and it requires wading through reams of back history to understand why healthcare IT is the way it is. Healthcare is not an easy industry to "disrupt." There are too many entities with too much invested in certain methods of operation.
(At left: Logan and his pal Jessica 6 discover that disrupting an entrenched industry -- say, an industry predicated on killing 29-year-olds -- can be a challenge.)
That goes for a lot of industries -- urban policy, transit infrastructure, logistics, biotech, textbooks. Last Friday, Phil and I turned off our brains to watch Shark Tank and the last company pitching had us both sputtering into our drinks.
The kids running the company had the idea to rent digital textbooks by the day, arguing that students only used their textbooks maybe four or five days out of a semester, so why pay $150 for a book when you could rent the book before tests instead?
The ruthless pragmatist in me thought, "Well, they could corner the market on penny-wise/pound foolish kids who are also poor students."
But this product was useless for good students or for broke students, for a few reasons. For starters:
- The point to a textbook is that good students really use that sucker, poring over it before or after class, highlighting passages, writing marginalia, cross-checking the reading against your notes. You can't do that if you're using it a scant four or five times per semester.
- Most classes that require books really don't care where you get them, so you can always scout for cheaper prices on Amazon. (My mom basically bought all her college texts this way.) You can also sell your textbook back to a university bookstore (or Amazon) and recoup 50% of the cost or so. You wouldn't be able to recoup the cost of a rental textbook -- and you'd have constraints on how many days you could rent that thing before you crossed the "I should have just bought it" line.
- The people who ran this company never explained how they swung the digital rights management. Would students be able to print off pages from the book so they could share with their friends or compile an offline study guide? Would there be a limit on pages? What about highlighting passages and notes? Where were those saved? Could you save copies of your adulterated (highlighted/annotated) pages to a local machine? Did you have to pay extra to store your notes?
- They also did not explain how they would guarantee 24/7 access and service. If the tool someone needs to pass a class is in the cloud, how do you make sure there are no crashes or outages during finals weeks? What's the financial structure like to guarantee that student-customers are happy with customer service if they can't access their rental on time?
- But perhaps most damning: These guys did not explain how their business was going to navigate the world of textbook publishing, nor did they want to really disrupt it. They betrayed a near-total lack of knowledge regarding the ridiculous state of textbook publishing at the college level. (Which would explain why the Shark who actually has worked with academic publishers was like, "No. A thousand times no.") They also seemed to act as if expensive textbooks are a permanent consumer problem, as opposed to a market that is already being transformed by electronic publishing.
It is harder to disrupt an existing system than it is to invent an entirely new one. Perhaps that's the appeal of building apps -- you can invent a market, which you can then dominate.
It's fun to wring one's hands over the Logan's Run atmosphere around "hot" startups, because it's a handy surrogate for the usual middle-aged fears about being thrown over for younger, faster, less tired, less encumbered workers. But it wouldn't hurt to consider that there's more than one way to change the world. Sometimes, quiet reform is more effective and disruptive than youthful revolution. But is it just as lucrative?