All of us in software have been in a little bit of a funk over the new new thing in Silicon Valley, alternative energy. It’s the preeminent challenge of our time, and it’s largely in the realms of material science, not computer science.
Watching a new vanguard go by is a novel experience for many of us, and so we all have felt at least a momentary impulse to leap into the fray and join the next Exxon, the one based on technology rather than plunder.
But I’m not sure the Internet crowd is cut out for that. Harrison Ford once said that George Lucas only gave two types of direction to the Star Wars cast: “faster” and “the same, but better.” This is what the alternative energy folks are doing, which is a different kind of creativity than building software.
A fuel cell or a solar panel doesn’t have to be beautiful like Netvibes, or fun like Flickr. It won’t help people fall in love, find a home, or write a novel as they do on MySpace, or Redfin, or Zoetrope. It isn’t a Second Life or a World of Warcraft. You won’t have an immediate emotional reaction to it the way you did — I still remember this moment, that sound! — when you first turned on a Mac. It won’t be compulsive like blogs, or make you smile in surprise like YouTube.
Somewhere in your basement, under your hood, in the belly of big ships headed out to sea, alternative energy will make the world a profoundly better & wealthier place. Software has sometimes done that too. But our main consolation lies in what Yeats described as the rag-and-bone shop of the heart: making stuff that delights people. This is something we think about here at Redfin, even if it’s just a real estate site, even if we have a very long way to go yet in that effort…
Bonus tidbit from a friend of Redfin: [Jesse] Owens never met Hitler, but his victories were recorded by the Fuhrer’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, in her remarkable documentary about the games, “Olympia.” (While cajoling Nazi leaders, Riefenstahl carried on an affair with the American athlete Glenn Morris, who later played Tarzan in the movies. After winning the gold medal in the decathlon, Morris ripped open Riefenstahl’s blouse and kissed her breasts in full view of 100,000 spectators.)
And, finally, Redfin shows up on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle’s business section this Sunday… the print article apparently has a cartoon of us dressed up like Don Quixote.