Virtual Idealists

Steve Jobs is the Internet generation’s Robert Kennedy. Close your eyes, and the Apple CEO even sounds like a Kennedy: follow your passion, the charismatic icon tells our youth; change the world. Except Jobs is selling gadgets, not civil rights.

No one seems to have noticed. Now, oil companies gush over the environment. Insurance ads quote Thoreau. Retailers fight HIV. And it all started in Silicon Valley.
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I worked there from 1995 – 2005, and saw Silicon Valley take in the world’s best and brightest. Unlike other fortune-seekers, many of us were idealists, the kind of people who in a different time might have become teachers, doctors and social workers. In 1997, just after Netscape’s public offering inaugurated the Internet era, medical school applications declined precipitously for six straight years. Over that same period, the U.S. faced the worst teacher shortage in its history. The idealists had become virtual idealists.

It’s hard afterwards to come back to genuine ideals. Two years ago, my twin brother left a law firm protecting the Internet bubble’s investment bankers, for a government job protecting the environment. Now he complains you can’t turn the lights on in his office over the weekend without calling a special number. Before that, he worked for a non-profit that represented asylum seekers, who often showed up late for meetings. “No one ever did that when I cost $390 an hour,” he said.

In a year away from high-tech, I volunteered at inner-city schools and felt the same way: my time was lightly valued because I was giving it away, and many of the tutors seemed unmotivated compared to my old colleagues.

So now I’m back in Internet software, mostly because I missed the sense of purpose and importance that being around other driven people gave me. I believe in what we’re doing. But since we’re also out to turn a profit, some have ventured to call this belief disingenuous.

And it may seem so, but not to anyone in high technology, which has so thoroughly mixed virtue with commerce that you can hardly tell the two apart. Apple launched the Mac with an ad showing a woman heaving a hammer at a televised image of Big Brother. Google is famous for its promise to not be evil, and eBay’s latest slogan is “people are good.”

What each of these companies fears most is the loss of their original idealistic zeal: for CEO Jeff Bezos, it is still “day one” at Amazon; topping 10,000 employees, Google insists that it has “a small-company feel.” With near-monopolies in online bookselling, music, search and auctions, these companies imagine themselves as Davids, not Goliaths.

The touchstone of this idealism is the Internet itself, which for many of us has the conceptual magnitude of a new America, with new possibilities of community (MySpace), self-expression (YouTube), freedom (Second Life), love (Match.com), and authenticity (blogs). We forget about the porn, the spam, the get-rich-quick schemes. Nothing could be more American than dressing up an historic money-grab into a City on the Hill.

And every entrepreneur is straining to be John Winthrop. The most coveted role in Silicon Valley is that of the visionary, the pied piper who leads the poets and the dreamers on a mission to build a better gizmo. These entrepreneurs are the kind of free spirits who could have started a movement.

Together, we’ve made our corner of capitalism a bit better: many of the rewards go to those who actually do the work, the engineers; the work itself is done in small groups, so we have a meaningful connection to what we make; our product is the purest form of creativity, built from ones and zeros rather than coal and trees; and the result is often useful and delightful to other people — occasionally it even changes the world.

It can, more rarely than we would like, also make us rich. It’s considered a bit grubby to make things that people will pay for, even when — as was the case with Google, Yahoo!, eBay (and yes, Redfin) – we make it before having any idea how people will pay. But it isn’t hard to choose between the grubbiness of making something (even if it’s just a website) and what my brother does at his non-profit job, which is essentially trying to stop people from making something. Making something might be the most basic and fulfilling compulsion humans have.

And so that’s why, for my generation, Apple is our Woodstock. Google is our Chicago Democratic Convention. The class of 1967 would not have campaigned so vociferously against Vietnam if they could have imagined themselves starting Google. And the class of 2007 might be marching against Darfur now if it could think of anything but starting another Google.

We’re still idealistic, but about e-mail spam, online privacy and net neutrality, not war, or poverty, or racism. The world around us is falling apart and we can hardly look up from our computer screens, where the Internet becomes more beautiful every day.
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Discussion

  • youmustbejoking

    So you think of yourself as doing something meaningful, that doesn’t count as actually doing something meaningful.

    Websites, by the way, run on electricity. Electricity is created by burning fossil fuels.

    If there are now fewer people to rail against our government’s cyncial and corrupt actions because more people are pursuing the one in a million dream of becoming the next Google, our society is far worse off rather than better.

  • kristi

    electricity is also created from hydropower… youmustbejoking sounds like such an optimist :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroelectric_power

    i think you guys are doing a great thing, keep up the good work!

  • Glenn Kelman

    The world must know! Who is youmustbejoking?

  • youmustbejoking

    1. Here’s a decent breakdown of where the electricity in the US comes from: http://www.newenglandwind.org/wind/about.where.php

    2. Do you think we should have a National, Steve Jobs Day, like we do for Martin Luther King for all of Steve Job’s selfless Acts for humanity? Just a few thousand more I-Pod sales and tyranny will be wiped out from earth once and for all.

    3. I cannot reveal my identity, however, I will reveal I reside in Washington State.

    4. Actually do good. Don’t just have it as a motto while you are selling pre-IPO shares to the Republican governor of California.

  • youmustbejoking

    By the way, I have one last snyde remark for the day:

    Real Life Activity would benefit us more than Virtual Ideology.

  • http://smallprecautions.blogspot.com Nils

    Glenn, this transition from social-cum-political utopianism to techno-utopianism is well-chronicled in Fred Turner’s recent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: ttp://tinyurl.com/366b3j

  • http://blog.redfin.com Glenn Kelman

    Thanks Nils. As always, you are more well read than I am.

  • http://www.inman.com jswesey

    I just have to say because of the Gap Red ad here how anxious I am to see an enterprising journalist dig into that campaign and find out exactly how it benefits Gap and others way more than any situation in Africa. It’s funny to me how they can’t even provide any meaningful numbers on the amount of money going to actual aid vs. what I presume to be a ridiculous amount of money spent on the marketing campaign. Every other legitimate aid campaign must provide these numbers. This campaign to me, sadly, is nothing more than corporate spin on people’s emotions and the hipness of feeling like you’re giving back in some way. Sure, the upside is that even a small amount of cash going is better than nothing. But the downside is that you end up with a bunch of people thinking they helped in some way by buying a red t-shirt, when the truth is that they helped Gap way more than they helped the grave situations in Africa which are much too numerous and gruesome to note here.

  • http://blog.redfin.com Glenn Kelman

    The amount donated to the United Negro College Fund is dwarfed by the amount spent promoting the donation…

  • Dee

    Wow, Glenn, you really got people waxing ideologically here, didn’t you? Yes, it does seem like a big change, but so was the alphabet, the printing press, the telegraph, etc. Yes we do think about things a bit differently, but to be a bit cliche “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    Oh, and about the Gap campaign… part of me wonders about the exploitation, but the other part thinks either way they’re making ridiculous amounts of money, so why not make ridiculous amounts of money and bring attention to a good cause rather than just make ridiculous amounts of money?

  • Pablo Oliva

    Glenn, if you are ever in L.A., shoot me an email, I’d like to invite you to a friendly dinner.

  • Frank Sanborn

    As an techno idealist, I believe that our fundamental mission in life is to make this place better, better for our child, our grand children and great grand children. If you study aboriginal cultures, you will see that this was on the forethought of every decision the tribe made (all major decision were made by all of the elders in the tribe, not just the “chief”). Today, in our society our tribes are transient, especially the work tribe, people come and people go, the corporate identity has no commitment to it’s employees. I am a huge fan of making our education system better, so I developed some really cool technology to deliver interactive content to help tell stories to k-12 kids, after investing most of my personal savings and putting in a over a year’s time into developing the idea into reality, federal funding dried up, and the vc world would not touch me.. I was at a MIT venture labs last week, (Glenn, your presentation rocked!) after the meeting I talked briefly to Greg about my misfunded venture (as I am looking for a new work tribe to play with). His quote to me was “No money for education, don’t know why”. I believe that everyone should work from the heart and the world would be a much better place. Built reality is we need to pay the mortgage, buy shoes for the kids, and eat food. At the same time we have to take the lessons the elder’s of yester years, if we really want this reality to succeed. I am refreshed when I am with people who hold similar values… Thanks for bringing your talents and energies up here to Seattle and leading Redfin, I find the site original, very useful, and cool……. You are bound to succeed (or so they say)….

  • Noble

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