There are literally hundreds of thousands of ways to interact with digital media. You can speak into your cell phone and search the whole web for a vague keyword or type in an address and receive personalized directions to your destination. Technology does a great job of achieving both the incredibly vague and the extremely specific but aren’t all these utilities just that, utilities? And what exactly do utilities do? They simply make life more convenient. But how could we get technology to do more than just make our lives a little easier?
Not very many startups in Silicon Valley, outside of Biotech, are interested in products that do more than just make life more convenient or provide some one hit wonder function, like adding a filter over a photograph. But without a monetization model, how can you value such a product, and moreover, how can Facebook, a publicly traded company, justify purchasing such a company for a whopping one billion dollars? This is the most extreme cases but the trend in technology start ups is to scale (i.e. gain a lot of users) and sell or as I like to call it: Scale and Sell.
When asked by a panel of college students what sector the next Bill Gates would come out of, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet responded, and I paraphrase, biotech or a software based solution to the education problem. But why do a vast majority of Silicon Valley startups have nothing to do with education? Two reasons: 1) it’s currently not an attractive industry due to lack of spending and 2) entrepreneurs aren’t aware of the resources that have been provided to help aid their education startups. Aneesh Chopra, former CTO to the Obama Administration, outlined a number of resources and funding programs the government has implemented since his position was created in a lecture to Stanford Students at the DFJ sponsored “Stanford Technology Ventures Program”.
But how does a small edu-startup with $50,000 in seed funding from the government compete with Pearson Education or McGraw-Hill? These two companies have nearly monopolized the education business selling everything from textbooks and ebooks to software that actually replaces the classroom environment completely. There is an answer to this question and albeit simple, it is the truth. Think big.
The most interesting man of opinion on the subject of technological advancement and its impact on ‘reading’ which, for the most part, leads to attaining some kind of valuable knowledge, is the historian Daniel Boorstin. Mr. Boorstin spoke of the horrors that would come from less reading, specifically how it affects our ability to differentiate between what is real and what is not. In her article, Christine Rosen states “What Boorstin feared – that the society beholden to the image would cease to distinguish the real from the unreal – has not come to pass”. I must say everything leading up to this sentence I agreed with but Mr. Boorstin’s fears have most definitely come to pass, just not on a universal scale.
I can say from personal experience that television, film, videogames and an overall lack of social interaction that results from an overdose of the aforementioned have and continue to blur the line between reality and fantasy for many, particularly of my generation. As Boorstin feared, a lack of reading or a great reduction has led to consumers vicariously living through the lives of the characters they see on TV at night, or films in the theatre, etc. It has also, in some cases, led to extreme acts of violence where depictions of casual violence in films and video games led to the blurring that Boorstein feared to come.
Since the beginning of time man has innovated and as we innovate it is always up to us what we choose to do with such innovations. We can use them for the greater good, personal benefit, monetary gain or downright evil, it is simply up to the individual. If one could possibly see a world where people create value rather than consume the opposite, maybe they’d prefer it.