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OPINIONS

The False Promise of Entrepreneurship

On Monday, The Daily published an opinion column about entrepreneurship that I felt captured much of what’s wrong about the way that Stanford and many of its students are currently thinking about undergraduate education. I reacted swiftly and angrily on Facebook, so I want to take some time here to discuss more extensively how Stanford’s intense focus on entrepreneurship and startup culture distracts from real problems and stifles real meaning.

Old folk like me will doubtless remember the ASSU Executive election of three years past, which gave us the audacious and ambitious Stanford 2.0 platform that advertised “student government as social entrepreneurship.” The campaign website was slickly designed and stuffed with promises that this new approach would revolutionize student life, and the voters said yes please. On August 26, 2011, nearly a month before fall quarter began, the new ASSU sent out an email proclaiming itself “The World’s Most Effective & Innovative Student Government.”

According to their so-called “Checklist 2.0,” this ragtag team of entrepreneurs accomplished no more or no less than your average, old-fashioned ASSU Executives. Premised on the prospect of future value, Stanford 2.0 perfectly encapsulated what entrepreneurial ventures so often come to: aggressive branding with little to no worthwhile substance.

We see that word, entrepreneurship, all the time, in the flyers lining our bathroom stalls and in the emails that StartX inexplicably has permission to send to the entire campus. We even had an entire dorm devoted to it last year, the eDorm in Suites. Yet the more e’s we add to building names and drop from app names, the more the word simply becomes shorthand for a fast track to a million dollars.

Or a billion dollars. Or three billion. Or 19 billion. It is no longer a secret that the primary goal of entrepreneurship and startup culture is not to build anything new but to catch the attention and cash flow of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, LinkedIn or any of those other companies that populate Silicon Valley.

As I said in my initial reaction on Facebook, there is nothing wrong with this kind of entrepreneurship, but there’s also nothing right about it. The startups that have arisen in recent years, from Snapchat to DoorDash to Shoutt to RacoonVille, are focused entirely on making money from previously untapped markets. They contribute essentially nothing to technological innovation: They may make our lives easier, but hardly in groundbreaking ways. I haven’t seen any evidence that the value that these startups do add to the world substantially benefits anybody other than their employees and shareholders.

Stanford invests in startups, provides many others with the initial technological resources necessary to get their businesses off the ground and celebrates startup culture as alumni donations start flowing in. Naturally, the path of entrepreneurship is understandably attractive to many Stanford students. Although it can be a high-risk path, Stanford provides so much support and backup that it almost seems foolish not to follow it.

This is the false promise of entrepreneurship — that through money we can find meaning. Entrepreneurship measures success in dollars earned, not in stomachs fed or lives enriched. It conflates life goals with business benchmarks and purposeful dialogue with focus-grouped branding. Money will perpetually dominate our conversations, but too often at Stanford we talk about those who already have money while ignoring those who do not have enough.

We should be better than that, and in many ways we are. During my time at Stanford, I have met scores of people who inspire and astound me. These are the people who take weekly Marguerite rides to volunteer in East Palo Alto, who fight to keep a homeless shelter open downtown and who commit to teaching in underserved communities. Beyond the realm of public service, I know artists who aspire to create and entertain, future doctors who aspire to research new drugs and vaccines and, yes, computer scientists who aspire to build technologies that make our government more efficient and our world more secure.

I have to believe that we all enter Stanford with the passionate search for greater meaning ablaze within us. But as the senior class approaches graduation, I can see that this flame has begun to flicker. For some, it’s already out. Personally, mine is burning dimly, suffocated by anxiety, self-doubt and resignation to the economic realities of the world outside the Stanford Bubble.

There must be a way for Stanford to help us hold on to that passion — the same passion that Stanford’s gatekeepers lauded when they let us in. If Stanford is to take seriously its majors in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, then it must actively combat that end-of-college feeling that choosing those majors was a mistake. Opportunities for a well-paid and relevant first job do exist, but they are fiercely competitive and woefully finite.

Otherwise, the next “best” option is money-driven entrepreneurship. The allure is intoxicating — that’s why I voted for Stanford 2.0 three years ago. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to live comfortably in Silicon Valley, pushing the limits of economic sanity. Maybe that’s the direction that Stanford wants to take into the future. But if that’s the case, then it’s not the Stanford I want to attend anymore. It’s certainly not the Stanford we were promised.

 

Matt Lopez is a senior majoring in political science. Contact him at malopez@stanford.edu.

  • SIW Brother

    Matty L FTW… Amen my man!

  • Jenn Schaffer ’14

    Thumbs up.

  • Shafiul

    Reading articles like this frustrates me as a future student. although im not going to a prestigious school, this is happening at every level.

  • a programmer

    Thanks for this and your original reactions.

    One slight quibble. CS and programming certainly need no defense, but I want to say something anyway in case not everybody understands this. (Your phrase “and, yes, computer scientists” implies that you’re making the I think common assumption that entrepreneurship (eship) is a CS thing, and I want to make the point that it’s not.)

    I want us to move away from thinking of CS as a prerequisite or (worse) only suited for eship. I want us to think of algorithmic thinking and programming in a similar way to how we think about math and writing. For some of us, algorithms are objects worth studying for their own sake, like math and literature. For others, they are useful when solving other problems, again like math and writing. CS is tremendously useful, and that’s why it happens to be one driver of the economy. But we should not then turn that around and think it’s /only/ useful for making money. It’s useful for a lot of things: e.g., simulating and analyzing biological, chemical, physical, social, and economic systems. And, just to drive the point home, often some of us spend a lot of time programming to solve problems in various disciplines with no expectation nor desire for remuneration in any way equal to that in business, just like everyone else not in entrepreneurship.

  • Joanne

    I studied briefly at Stanford as a summer exchange student.
    Coming from a campus which championed finance, I found Stanford to be a fresh breath of air. It’s amazing how enabling Stanford can be for someone who aspires to build a small business.
    All schools have a “niche.” There may be some things wrong with Stanford’s entrepreneurial culture- over the top marketing, herd mentality driving important career decisions, etc.- but there are worse things that a college campus can be immersed in. By consistently producing great entrepreneurs, I personally believe Stanford delivers tangible value both to the US and its own own campus.

  • asdf

    looks like they are letting anybody write anything for the daily these days…

  • Ninja

    You know which startups have “arisen in recent years?” 23andme, Indiegogo, Samasource, etc. They certainly weren’t created to “catch the attention and cash flow of Facebook, Google, Twitter.” Dare you to tell me that they “contribute essentially nothing to technological innovation.”

  • bittergradguy

    This is a valid opinion. Where I have a problem is when Stanford assumes that everyone else should have the same niche. Until they break that habit, Stanford students shouldn’t assume that everyone wants to be like Stanford.

  • bittergradguy

    I find it interesting that you chose examples of startups that weren’t founded by Stanford Alumni.

  • bittergradguy

    Oh really… I’m going to check out my old college and see if they’ve resisted this surge.

  • Dave

    It is true that it is hard to see how some of these startups don’t provide substantial benefits to people besides the shareholders and the creators. Many are entertainment. However, you can say the same thing for the Olympics, other sporting events, television, and cable (gasp, House of Cards) shows, a poem, a photograph, a song, a movie. Some things entertain people, some people find even more meaning in a poem, a song, a superbowl win, a message from a lost long friend on Facebook. And that is okay.

  • sure but

    Samasource is a non-profit. This article is a reaction to the one on Monday in which Pulse, Snapchat, and Instagram (and LinkedIn, depending on interpretation) were the specific examples.

  • Stewart MacGregor-Dennis

    Hey Matt,

    I read your opinion piece yesterday, and I’d like to now express a few thoughts in response to your piece. I’ll try to go point by point.

    Regarding “On Monday, The Daily published an opinion column about entrepreneurship that I felt captured much of what’s wrong about the way that Stanford and many of its students are currently thinking about undergraduate education.”:

    That is an opinion I do not share. Justin’s opinion piece is about as harmless as it gets. It basically just describes BASES, StartX and some entrepreneurship classes in a positive light. Sure, those resources might be irrelevant to many students at Stanford, yet that’s true for myriad resources in athletics, arts, music, specific fields of research, etc. I’m happy that Stanford provides many resources to students even when those resources are not applicable to me. I think that Justin highlighting these resources to other students interested in entrepreneurship is worthwhile and unbefitting of the negative light you have sought to depict his writing in.

    Regarding “I reacted swiftly and angrily on Facebook”:

    I’m sorry to hear that you got angry over this. Again, Justin’s opinion piece was pretty chill. I think it’s pretty unconstructive to get upset about it.

    Regarding “Stanford’s intense focus on entrepreneurship and startup culture”:

    From my experience at Stanford, the university has an intense focus on excellence in all that it does. Just look at pretty much any area of Stanford and you’ll find outstanding working being done. The history of Stanford charting from Leland Stanford through Silicon Valley’s progression mean that entrepreneurship is a strong suit of the university, yet describing it as an “intense focus” doesn’t reflect the breadth and excellence with which Stanford performs on its other foci.

    Regarding “distracts from real problems”:

    I couldn’t disagree more. When you have companies like Tesla tackling climate change by moving us to electric vehicles, Google revolutionizing the way humans are accessing knowledge and other communication companies that have partially catalyzed democratic revolutions around the world, I’d ask: what do you think constitutes a real problem? I see entrepreneurship as one way to work on real problems, and just because some of them are not to your liking does not mean that those problems are not real.

    Regarding “stifles real meaning”:

    Again, how does it stifle meaning? You decide what is meaningful for you. Some people do find meaning through entrepreneurship, yet clearly not everyone will. So, even if you don’t personally find meaning through entrepreneurship, I find your claim that it stifles meaning to be high dubious. In my view, anyone can go find meaning for themselves; if you’re letting startups stifle meaning for you, that’s more of a reflection of your approach to finding meaning than anything intrinsic about entrepreneurship supposedly stifling meaning.

    Regarding “Old folk like me will doubtless remember the ASSU Executive election of three years past, which gave us the audacious and ambitious Stanford 2.0 platform that advertised “student government as social entrepreneurship.” The campaign website was slickly designed and stuffed with promises that this new approach would revolutionize student life, and the voters said yes please. On August 26, 2011, nearly a month before fall quarter began, the new ASSU sent out an email proclaiming itself “The World’s Most Effective & Innovative Student Government.””:

    I’m glad you remember haha. Look, people have made a lot dumber mistakes during their sophomore summer in college than sending out hyperbolic emails. We were enthusiastic, and we got a little carried away at the time. Which Stanford student can claim they haven’t been a little overzealous about their projects before?

    Regarding “According to their so-called “Checklist 2.0,” this ragtag team of entrepreneurs accomplished no more or no less than your average, old-fashioned ASSU Executives. Premised on the prospect of future value, Stanford 2.0 perfectly encapsulated what entrepreneurial ventures so often come to: aggressive branding with little to no worthwhile substance.”:

    A few points.

    First, only a few of us would have identified with entrepreneurship among the team. Second, I’m not sure if that document does imply that. Third, I actually think most of the ASSU Executives do solid work respective to the fact that they’re just college students, so I’d be more than happy to be in that category. Fourth: I don’t really mind about your assessment of our accomplishments on a personal level, yet I think that your statement does a disservice to the large number of students who worked with us that year. Fifth, every political campaign is in some way premised on the prospect of future value. Do you think that our current US President is fully living up the the future value prospects communicated in his first campaign? Looking at polls, it seems that a lot of Americans don’t think so. Sixth, I again find that your remark about “no worthwhile substance” to be both inaccurate and not taking into account the work done by my friends and fellow students during that time. Seventh: sure you can say that about entrepreneurial ventures, yet most of them fail (which is why they are called entrepreneurial ventures) and so of course this is going to be the case; from the perspective of the entrepreneur, they might as well try to maximize the chances of their success with aggressive branding, while trying to increase the value that they deliver, because the odds are so heavily stacked against them. So while I get your point, I think that it misses the point about entrepreneurship.

    Regarding “We see that word, entrepreneurship, all the time, in the flyers lining our bathroom stalls”:

    There are a lot of fliers around campus. The same is true with communities areas (e.g. public libraries) in SF and other areas of the world. My recommendation would be to get used to seeing flyers advertising activities irrelevant to your interests.

    Regarding “We even had an entire dorm devoted to it last year, the eDorm in Suites.”:

    Yeah, I was happy to live in it.

    Again, I’ll come back to addressing the negative reaction you seem to have to entrepreneurship. There is a global citizenship themed dorm on campus. In my experience, it regularly sent out emails and put up flyers about global citizenship activities that I was not interested in. There’s no way I would have negatively reacted about this though. I’m happy for those students to go and pursue their interests. If you have a justification for the negative reactions you appear to have to encountering entrepreneurship related content, I’d genuinely love to hear about it.

    Regarding “Yet the more e’s we add to building names and drop from app names, the more the word simply becomes shorthand for a fast track to a million dollars.[…]Or a billion dollars. Or three billion. Or 19 billion.”:

    You go in on this straw-man critique about how entrepreneurship is just about being money driven. For many of us, that’s not what it’s about. Please see how I responded to this point, which I’d encountered elsewhere to, via twitter yesterday (https://twitter.com/macgregordennis/status/438874389921030144)

    I’ll recap it here (I’ve copied the text of the tweets with sentences rather than tweets):

    I frequently still read the Gordon Gecko straw man critique of business and entrepreneurship: that it’s just about the money. I don’t view it that way. Business is about accomplishing things through a for-profit model, which is highly effective. Each of us decides what we find meaningful. Some of us see +ve material impact as meaningful. Biz is 1 way 2 maximize that material impact. If you want to make something happen, for-profit enterprises can be efficient ways of acquiring resources to do so more impactfully. Within business, money is a tool for furthering the ends you want to materialize. So the extent 2 which I do hv a strong acquisitive drive 4 money is determined by my desire 2 work on increasingly resource-intensive ideas. Some of wt I do (e.g. investing) is purely aimed @ maximizing monetary returns, yet that’s stl in order 2 acquire capital 4 financing ideas. If you think that everyone sees making money as the only end-goal, please stop watching Gordon Gekko movies. Then, within business, if you don’t like the kinds of ends that some are creating through their businesses, I’d say: go start your own. There are many other ways of making change, a number of which I additionally pursue (art, activism, civic engagement, discourse, etc). Business is just one powerful vehicle for change. Those who aren’t inclined towards it are free to do other things with their time. I don’t expect or even hope that every1 will go into biz, just as I don’t expect every1 to be a teacher even tho I think edu. is important. There r portions of the US population that are currently negative on biz. That’s fine. Frankly, I’m not interested in that kind of thinking. I’ll just focus on collaborating, partnering and doing business with those who are pro-business and want to use it to make positive change.

    Regarding “It is no longer a secret that the primary goal of entrepreneurship and startup culture is not to build anything new but to catch the attention and cash flow of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, LinkedIn or any of those other companies that populate Silicon Valley.”:

    Since when was that the primary goal? Frankly, that is your guess – and I think an inaccurate guess too. It’s also highly reductionary to assume that everyone has the same goals. Most of the people I’ve met in entrepreneurship have different goals, and do not reflect the straw man depiction you’ve portrayed here.

    Regarding “there is nothing wrong with this kind of entrepreneurship, but there’s also nothing right about it.”:

    I think there’s a lot that’s right about it. First, I think many of them are furthering ends that will help the world. Second, I think that economic growth is itself good in that it helps us to alleviate poverty and raise standards of living; if these enterprises are successful, they’ll pay a lot of tax that can be allocated to addressing these problems. So I think that there is a lot right about it.

    Moreover, this is like me going around saying that there’s nothing right about the art that is produced on campus. I love the art. I went to (and performed once) in spoken words shows, would work while listening to music in the CoHo and go to many other art events. I appreciate that work, rather than dismissing it. The bottom line is that I think that when any area of Stanford’s activities flourishes, that benefits the rest of us.

    Regarding “The startups that have arisen in recent years, from Snapchat to DoorDash to Shoutt to RacoonVille, are focused entirely on making money from previously untapped markets.”:

    Some of my friends are working for or founded these companies. I take issue with your portrayal of them here in the words “focused entirely”; yes, they are tapping untapped markets yet most appear to have other objectives too. Snapchat is having a pretty profound impact on the way people communicate; DoorDash’s service is greatly helping many small businesses; I don’t know as much about the other two, yet I once again find your reductionary analysis and straw man default line of critique to not be reflective of the realities.

    Regarding “they contribute essentially nothing to technological innovation”:

    I disagree there too. Having these services operate at the scale that they are at is very much innovative.

    Regarding “They may make our lives easier, but hardly in groundbreaking ways.”:

    I think some of the examples you’ve listed have been groundbreaking. For instance, Snapchat has revolutionized the way that many people communicate and interact; positive change at a social and behavioral level is still positive change, and changing the way that millions of people interact with each other is, in my opinion, groundbreaking.

    Furthermore, I’m inclined to think that you cherry-picked examples that you thought others might deem less than groundbreaking, given the plethora of hugely impactful companies that have historically and contemporarily emerged from Stanford. I think most would agree that much groundbreaking work has been done.

    Regarding “I haven’t seen any evidence that the value that these startups do add to the world substantially benefits anybody other than their employees and shareholders.”:

    I’ll just address the two examples I’m familiar with. From what I’ve read, DoorDash has been having a measurable incremental effect on many restaurants’ revenues. This therefore substantially benefits those within their supply-chain. Additionally, they deliver food to their customers upon order. So, in this case, they substantially benefit customers and small -businesses within their supply-chain in addition to the stakeholders that you mention. On Snapchat, their users benefit from a new way to communicate. Additionally, everyone benefits from the increased income tax revenues from jobs created by these companies. Therefore, I think that your statement here is incorrect.

    Regarding “This is the false promise of entrepreneurship — that through money we can find meaning.”:

    That is not the promise of entrepreneurship. That is your misinterpretation of the promise. You can determine what is meaningful, and entrepreneurship is one vehicle through which you can act upon what you think would be meaningful. Money is a tool – an abstraction of value that’s more efficient than barter – and the degree to which you view the tool as a means or an end is within your own control.

    Regarding “Entrepreneurship measures success in dollars earned, not in stomachs fed or lives enriched.”:

    First, DoorDash almost certainly measures stomachs fed ;). Moreover, many businesses measure metrics beyond financial ones. Customers pay for what you provide them, and so not measuring the degree to which you are enriching the lives of your customers seems like poor business strategy. Again, I think you are projecting a simplified understand of business onto others that doesn’t correspond with how these businesses actually operate.

    Regarding “It conflates life goals with business benchmarks and purposeful dialogue with focus-grouped branding.”:

    Does it? Which businesses have you worked in or observed that do this? This hasn’t been my experience.

    Regarding “Money will perpetually dominate our conversations, but too often at Stanford we talk about those who already have money while ignoring those who do not have enough.”:

    You can determine what you want to talk about in business. Most businesses around here are more product-focused than you’re perceiving them to be. They probably spend a lot more time thinking about how to create things that their customers want than just talking about money, though money is an important consideration. On the point about those who do not have enough, I actually think that entrepreneurship is one of their best hopes. Please see this talk on entrepreneurship in Somalia: http://www.ted.com/talks/mohamed_ali_the_link_between_unemployment_and_terrorism.html . I also recently discussed how China has helped 500 million people rise out of poverty through pro-capitalism reforms here: https://twitter.com/macgregordennis/status/437436526033518592 and in a dialogue with a fellow alum/friend here: http://www.macgregordennis.com/long_form_tweets_static_content/response_to_tiq_on_inequality). So, I’d suggest that business, entrepreneurship and economic growth is a pretty primary way to help those who do not have enough.

    Regarding “We should be better than that, and in many ways we are. During my time at Stanford, I have met scores of people who inspire and astound me. These are the people who take weekly Marguerite rides to volunteer in East Palo Alto, who fight to keep a homeless shelter open downtown and who commit to teaching in underserved communities. Beyond the realm of public service, I know artists who aspire to create and entertain, future doctors who aspire to research new drugs and vaccines and, yes, computer scientists who aspire to build technologies that make our government more efficient and our world more secure.”:

    I am equally inspired by these people. Please see my remarks on viewing success of any given area within Stanford’s activities as positive.

    Regarding “I have to believe that we all enter Stanford with the passionate search for greater meaning ablaze within us. But as the senior class approaches graduation, I can see that this flame has begun to flicker.”:

    Don’t let it.

    Regarding “If Stanford is to take seriously its majors in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, then it must actively combat that end-of-college feeling that choosing those majors was a mistake.”:

    I’ll just make three points here. First, I took SLE during my freshman year and in some ways that experience may have more deeply impacted my world-view and work than my CS major. Second, I hadn’t written a single line of code before entering Stanford and so if you want to pick it up then that’s totally feasible. Third, there is a strong job market for CS majors, yet I’d further suggest that there’s a strong job market for talented and ambitious people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and learn what’s needed for a job. I wouldn’t be daunted.

    Regarding “Otherwise, the next “best” option is money-driven entrepreneurship.”:

    Please see my above remarks on this. I think that you can drop the ‘money-driven’ adjective. Then, I think your points holds.

    Regarding “The allure is intoxicating — that’s why I voted for Stanford 2.0 three years ago.”:

    I’m sorry to hear that the reason you voted for us was that you found the allure of money-driven entrepreneurship intoxicating. That was not what we were campaigning on. We just wanted to try to be a little more entrepreneurial in our approach, compared with the bureaucratic, costly and risk-averse dysfunction of much of our current government.

    Regarding “Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to live comfortably in Silicon Valley, pushing the limits of economic sanity.”:

    Living ‘comfortably’ can help you be more creative, work harder and make a bigger impact. I certainly found the comfortable life at Stanford to be conducive to this.

    You don’t need to push “the limits of economic sanity”. Instead, you can just take a pragmatic look at what resources would be required to execute on what you want to make happen.

    Regarding “Maybe that’s the direction that Stanford wants to take into the future. But if that’s the case, then it’s not the Stanford I want to attend anymore. It’s certainly not the Stanford we were promised.”:

    The main point I’ve been making is that I think you’re making simplified and reductionary assessment of the direction Stanford appears to be moving in. In my view, Stanford is compounding its excellence in each of its activities. Our sports, our academics, our research, opportunities available for students, the quality of teaching and professorship, ways of involving alumni, etc; on each front, Stanford is improving. And, in my view, each front improves in a way the benefits the rest. When Stanford Football succeeds, the rest of the school can cheer. When a professor wins a noble prize, the rest of the university can be proud. We inspire each other through the diversity of our excellence. And so, what I’m asking of you is that when Justin writes an opinion piece describing some of the resources available for entrepreneurially-inclined students, or when you see the next BASES flier, or when Snapchat turns down another massive acquisition offer ;), you might respond with: that’s great – I’m happy for them.

    Best,
    Stewart

    p.s. If you have any thoughts on the above, I’d be more than happy to follow-up.

  • Bruce

    Thanks for taking the time to write this! Wanted to do something similar but didn’t have the time.

  • Stewart MacGregor-Dennis

    No problem Bruce. I wasn’t planning on responding but I came across this piece again late last night, and then I just sat down and cranked out my thoughts.

    Thanks for the appreciative words, and for doing what you can to argue in favor of a more positive attitude all-around.

  • Joanne

    I wish this was short enough to actually read, and less politically-driven.
    But yes, on the positive thinking benefits everyone.

  • Stewart MacGregor-Dennis

    Hey Joanne,

    Regarding “I wish this was short enough to actually read”:

    I figured that most people in the Stanford community have no problem reading things that are a few pages long. I was more going for a thorough response on this one. I think there’s a reason why we have headlines and articles, essays and books, abstracts and papers, etc; so I do think that longer-form content can be more useful sometimes in providing detailed responses.

    Regarding “less politically-driven”:

    Whether I agree with that analysis depends on what you mean be politically-driven. If you mean political in the sense of partisan, then I’m gonna disagree with you: I consider myself an independent with some views that are strongly misaligned with both mainstream US parties, so very little of what I do is seeking to further the agenda of one of these parties even if that occurs as an externality. If you mean political in the sense of relating to public affairs then yeah, sure. I want to advocate for a more positive, less negative, view of business, stick up for my friends who did good work and vigorously argue in favor of what I think would be good. I’ll make no bones about that.

    Regarding “But yes, on the positive thinking benefits everyone.”:

    Yep, that’s pretty much the headline version of what I was saying. Feel free to read the rest if you so desire.

  • sure but

    If we viewed everything as positive, there would be no room for criticism. This op-ed is one of criticism. You may criticize it yourself, of course, as you did.

    I don’t want to say much more except to say that you make assumptions that others do not hold. For example, you wrote: “Snapchat has revolutionized the way that many people communicate and interact; positive change at a social and behavioral level is still positive change, and changing the way that millions of people interact with each other is, in my opinion, groundbreaking.” It’s true Snapchat changes the way some people communicate, but I don’t see where it follows from your remarks that the change is “positive”. You seem simply to assume it’s positive. Others do not.

    In general, I think your analysis also does not properly account for opportunity costs and trade offs. Something can be positive while still being undesirable if it comes at the cost of something better, or if it came about in trade for something else that was valued but is now consequently gone.

  • Stewart MacGregor-Dennis

    Regarding “If we viewed everything as positive, there would be no room for criticism. This op-ed is one of criticism. You may criticize it yourself, of course, as you did.”:

    I view constructive criticism as positive. On Matt’s piece, much of what I was critiquing was what I view as unconstructive criticism (e.g. getting angry, straw manning, being dismissive of the work of others, etc). On my response, I tried to focus on what I view as constructive criticism; if there was a part of my criticism that you felt was not constructive, please let me know and then I’ll make adjustments accordingly in the future to the extent that I agree with your feedback.

    Regarding your second paragraph, others may not view Snapchat as positive, yet that’s irrelevant to my point: I was not making a universal assumption here – I was stating my point of view. My rationale for that point of view is that I view free and creative expression as good, and it appears that Snapchat enables its users to share and express themselves more freely through ephemeral messaging that is less constrained by calculations around future consequences. Others may not agree yet under conditions of liberty in a free-market, we can act upon our subjective points of view without needing to argue that they are universally correct. You might like an Android-based phone more than an iPhone and we can each purchase the respective product. We might have different visions for products that we each think would be better, and we can each go make them.

    So, I’m not arguing that Snapchat is universally good or positive in the same way that I wouldn’t argue that about my iPhone; I’m saying, in a parallel manner, that I personally think my iPhone was a great purchase and that consumers who have other viewpoints/preferences can go and buy other products.

    Furthermore, if you have arguments as to why people expressing themselves through this new form of media is nonpositive then please do express them. I’d be interesting in hearing your perspectives, and your arguments could well persuade me to adjust my own.

    Regarding your third/final paragraph, I think you bring up a good point. A few additional questions come to mind on this though. To what extent did these services come at the cost of something better? Given most enterprises fail, it’s unclear whether allocating the resources to other ventures would have produced better outcomes. To what extent would we prefer to provide entrepreneurs with the freedom and autonomy to actualize whatever vision they want to bring into the world? Some of these entrepreneurs seem to have particular views on what they want to make happen, and part of the beauty of the free-market is that they can then act to bring them to fruition. Not to detract in any way from what I think is a great product yet I’ll just say that I don’t think that a central-planner would have allocated considerable resources to developing Snapchat ;). Also, on the final sentence, did these services come about at the cost of something that is now gone? I’m not so sure.

    Anyway, we could have a more thorough debate about the final paragraph. I think there are some interesting issues here, and some of it would come down to the particulars.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Best,
    Stewart

  • sure but

    Hey Stewart, I’ve been trying to think of a way to respond to you, but I’m failing. The difficulty is sentences like this one: “[D]id these services come about at the cost of something that is now gone? I’m not so sure.” I suspect there’s such a huge gulf between our viewpoints that we simply cannot span it, at least in the comments section of a Daily op-ed piece. Maybe I’ll offer this one statement you can think about if you think it’s worthwhile: A free consumer market is not driven by rational behavior, but rather by irrational behavior, because consumption and the desires that drive it are not rational. One consequence of a free market driven by irrational behavior is the production of externalities. (In a completely rational market, that which is an externality in an irrational market would be internal.) Therefore, consumption in our market trades on externalities.

  • Stewart MacGregor-Dennis

    Regarding “Hey Stewart, I’ve been trying to think of a way to respond to you, but I’m failing. The difficulty is sentences like this one: “[D]id these services come about at the cost of something that is now gone? I’m not so sure.” I suspect there’s such a huge gulf between our viewpoints that we simply cannot span it, at least in the comments section of a Daily op-ed piece.”:

    I am very open minded in my views. If you make arguments that I find to be more convincing than what I currently hold to be the case, then I’d would welcome the learning opportunity. However, the starting point for how others usually change my views is by articulating them. So, if you think that there is a gulf between our views then please articulate what you think that gulf is.

    More specifically regarding “The difficulty is sentences like this one: “[D]id these services come about at the cost of something that is now gone? I’m not so sure.””:

    Please take this as a polite request that you articulate the difficulty you are having with that sentence.

    I’ll briefly sketch my argument here. I could make a very simple iPhone app this evening. In doing so, what would now be gone that existed before? It’s unclear to me what would be gone. I suppose you could argue that the labor that I put into it is now gone, yet I don’t think that my creation of the app has caused anything external to now be gone. This is a trivial example. However, I think that I could make an inductive argument that would mostly hold as you scale the resources put into the building. Essentially, the claim I’d be making a case for would be that what is gone in creating something is the resources (labor, capital, etc) that you put into creating it yet not necessarily anything external; though, with capital it’s not so much gone as transferred to other entities, and with labor I’d probably still be around and so its only really ‘gone’ in the sense that we view activity over time as something can be used up. I will admit that there are probably instances where creation does lead to destruction elsewhere, such as in hyper-competitive markets, yet my current view is that creation is more non-zero sum than it appears you are claiming it to be.

    Regarding “A free consumer market is not driven by rational behavior, but rather by irrational behavior, because consumption and the desires that drive it are not rational.”:

    I think that statement is false. I’d claim that a free consumer market is driven by rational & irrational behavior. My argument for this is that there are entities such as pension fund investors, real estate purchasers, more informed/rational individuals, procurement offices, etc, who often will take market actions that will much more closely fit what is usually meant by the word ‘rational’. Given that I’m pretty sure that there exist some market participants who arguably do participate rationally, I’d argue that free consumer markets are driven by both rational and irrational behaviors rather than just the latter as you suggested.

    Regarding “One consequence of a free market driven by irrational behavior is the production of externalities.”:

    Sure. One quibble: I think stating that externalities are a consequence of irrational behavior misses that they could also be a consequence of actions by rational agents with imperfect information. Without perfect information, a rational agent could make a decision that is rational relative to the information it has that leads to externalities that it did not foresee.

    Regarding “(In a completely rational market, that which is an externality in an irrational market would be internal.)”:

    I think that a completely rational market is probably a theoretical construct that doesn’t really occur in the real world. I suppose we could program computers to trade in a rational way, so perhaps it is attainable though.

    Regarding “Therefore, consumption in our market trades on externalities.”:

    I’m not entirely sure what that sentence means. When I consume, I’m usually trading in the market for products, services, goods, etc, even if externalities are produced. I’d re-phrase to: consumption in our market trades on products, services, goods, etc and sometimes additionally causes externalities.

    Moreover: though I disagree with aspects of the second half of your comment as described above, I’m not entirely sure what is the point that you are making. While I find this discussion of economic theory interesting, I don’t see how it is pertinent to the discussion that was taking place. I would much appreciate if you could help me to understand how this part of the discussion is relevant.

    Thanks for the follow-up comment.

    Best,
    Stewart

  • sure but

    Hi Stewart,

    Let’s focus on one example you gave: “I could make a very simple iPhone app this evening. In doing so, what would now be gone that existed before?”

    Now, from the start, I want to say this: I would never infringe on your freedom to do exactly that; indeed, I will always fight for freedom of expression in every form. Make all the apps you want. I do that kind of thing all the time. It’s fun! And you’re right: essentially nothing is gone. But guess what I don’t do, though: try to make a bunch of money from stupid things that I did just for fun.

    So where I will fight is when the app maker decides to sell the app. Is it an addictive game aimed at children (forget about age verification: we all know that’s just the legal dept doing their thing)? Does it help bullies to bully? Does it make it too easy for teenagers who don’t yet have a strong ability to control their behaviors to do things (send images, for example, however ostensibly fleeting) they may later regret, or that will cause them suffering? Will its revenue source be advertisements? Will it run on consumer electronics that are discarded too quickly and are not recycled properly? Will the makers of the app make a bundle of money and use that to push people out of where they’ve lived all their lives? Will the app further move us into not just tech-mediated, but tech-controlled, relationships while moving us away from simple oral and written communication? (And nobody tell me I’m being hypocritical because I’m writing a comment online: we’ve been doing that since Usenet was created in 1980, and back in the 19th century, mail was delivered within a city multiple times a day so people could have written dialogues in reasonably real time. Just because I use and approve of some things does not mean I approve of all things.)

    Smoking is not healthy, and yet people smoke. That is how a consumer market works. I won’t directly prevent a smoker from smoking, but I will try to make it harder for cigarette makers to sell their products. The same is true of many things, and I include a lot of what comes out of SV.

    I feel kind of like a nutcase debating with you on the internet, but you seem quite sincere, so I’m willing to do my best.

  • Stewart MacGregor-Dennis

    Hi “sure but”,

    Regarding “Now, from the start, I want to say this: I would never infringe on your freedom to do exactly that; indeed, I will always fight for freedom of expression in every form. Make all the apps you want. I do that kind of thing all the time. It’s fun! And you’re right: essentially nothing is gone.”:

    I appreciate your views on freedom of expression, and I’m glad to see that we’re on the same page here.

    Regarding “But guess what I don’t do, though: try to make a bunch of money from stupid things that I did just for fun.”:

    If you made money from the stupid things that you did just for fun then you’d be able to do more, and more resource-intensive, stupid things just for fun. There’s plenty of stuff that I do just for fun without a profit motive, yet if you can find a way to do what you enjoy in a way that also brings in money then I think that’s a pretty sweet deal.

    Regarding “So where I will fight is when the app maker decides to sell the app.”:

    My default view is that it makes sense to not interfere with app makers’ freedom to engage in commerce and sell their work. I’d want to hear more about what they’re selling before I took issue with it.

    Regarding “Is it an addictive game aimed at children (forget about age verification: we all know that’s just the legal dept doing their thing)?”:

    Sure, there are issues here. I’m not sure if it’s a clear what to do though. For instance, it’s pretty arguable that much of the US population is essentially addicted to TV media. Does that mean that it makes sense to ban it? Does it make sense to ban children’s tv shows just because some kids will be addicted to them? I’m inclined to think that kind of intervention could well lead to a worse situation.

    Regarding “Does it help bullies to bully?”:

    I agree that the more we can mitigate this the better.

    Regarding “Does it make it too easy for teenagers who don’t yet have a strong ability to control their behaviors to do things (send images, for example, however ostensibly fleeting) they may later regret, or that will cause them suffering?”:

    Snapchat is good for this as they’re less likely to have to regret sending the messages because they’ll have probably disappeared. Also, what is the alternative that you are proposing? Is it that teenagers not be allowed to use applications that allow them to send images to each other?

    Regarding “Will its revenue source be advertisements?”:

    Perhaps. It seems like you’re using the question, within the context of the others that you asked, in a way that suggests an advertising revenue source is somehow bad. I think that advertising can be very pro-consumer. For instance, I personally find it to be pretty awesome that I get to use many Google products for free because they monetize through ads rather than me directly paying them.

    Regarding “Will it run on consumer electronics that are discarded too quickly and are not recycled properly?”:

    Yes, let’s improve recycling practices. I think it does make sense for us to communicate to our government representatives that improved recycling in waste-disposal processes is worth making happen.

    Regarding “Will the makers of the app make a bundle of money”:

    You can see from my prior comments that I have no problem with them making a bundle of money, and actually see it as a good thing because they could then use that money for financing other projects, engaging in philanthropy, etc.

    Regarding “and use that to push people out of where they’ve lived all their lives?”:

    Regarding the gentrification point, I’m pretty sure this is a more macro-effect that’s larger than any specific app-maker getting rich. I’m generally pro increasing the supply of accommodation in order to counter these effects, which are in large part caused by restrictions on supply growth as well as the increase in demand.

    Regarding “Will the app further move us into not just tech-mediated, but tech-controlled, relationships while moving us away from simple oral and written communication? (And nobody tell me I’m being hypocritical because I’m writing a comment online: we’ve been doing that since Usenet was created in 1980, and back in the 19th century, mail was delivered within a city multiple times a day so people could have written dialogues in reasonably real time. Just because I use and approve of some things does not mean I approve of all things.)”:

    We probably disagree here yet I think that tech-mediated communications are good. I do have a lot of conversations with people in-person, yet technology dramatically increases the range of people that I can communicate with. For instance, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation without the internet and I appreciate the opportunity to converse.

    Regarding “Smoking is not healthy, and yet people smoke. That is how a consumer market works. I won’t directly prevent a smoker from smoking, but I will try to make it harder for cigarette makers to sell their products.”:

    I may agree with you there, though I haven’t really thought about this area as much. There are tricky issues and parallels. For instance, alcohol has strong parallel negative effects to cigarrettes yet prohibition seemed like a poor move. I additionally think that much of the ‘war on drugs’ has exacerbated matters. It’s unclear what the right move is, so I often bias towards freedom.

    Regarding “The same is true of many things, and I include a lot of what comes out of SV.”:

    I disagree with you there. I think that most of what comes out of SV is far more positive than tobacco products. I generally think that we want to minimize harm, costs, negative externalities, etc, yet I’d probably be on the other side of the debate if you’re arguing that most of what comes out of SV falls into a similar group as cigarettes.

    Regarding “I feel kind of like a nutcase debating with you on the internet, but you seem quite sincere, so I’m willing to do my best.”:

    I appreciate the debate. Thank you too for sincerely engaging.

    As a concluding remark, I interpret much of your comment as being about potentially negative aspects of what people produce. On this, I agree that we want to maximize the positive and minimize the negative. From there though, it’s often unclear what is the best way to do so and market interventions often appear to be counterproductive. Given this, I’m generally in favor of a free-market combined with vigorous efforts to inform consumers so that they can make better decisions. Furthermore, I’m in favor of encouraging people, or acting oneself, to go out and create better products. Someone who probably shared your view of cigarettes went out and created the less harmful e-cigarrettes; that’s the kind of thing I think is worth doing. So, aside from arguing for entrepreneurship to be viewed positively as one prong within a diverse and pluralistic set of excellent activities, much of my comments here have been directed towards advocating this point: be critical of what exists, and, if you don’t like something, go out and make something better.

    Best,
    Stewart

  • sure but

    Thanks for your responses, Stewart. It’s encouraging to see we largely agree on what is negative and what is positive. I’m thinking that we might just weight negatives and positives differently. Good discussion! Cheers.

  • Stewart MacGregor-Dennis

    I too am glad to see that we largely agree on that stuff. Whoever you are, perhaps sometime we’ll have the opportunity to discuss the weightings. I find that when you dive into the details and the nuance, rather than staying at a high-level, you often find that you have a lot more common ground with others than you’d anticipate.

    I also think it’s fine if we don’t fully agree. I value diversity of opinion, and our differences will probably lead us to work on different areas.

    Thanks for the chat and for the thought-provoking questions :).

    Best,
    Stewart