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Programming The Almighty Buck

Too Many Smart People Chasing Too Many Dumb Ideas? 376

theodp writes "In The Unexotic Underclass, C.Z. Nnaemeka argues that too many smart people are chasing too many dumb ideas. 'What is shameful,' writes Nnaemeka, 'is that in a country with so many problems, with such a heaving underclass, we find the so-called 'best and brightest,' the 20-and 30-somethings who emerge from the top American graduate and undergraduate programs, abandoning their former hangout, Wall Street, to pile into anti-problem entrepreneurship.' Nnaemeka adds, 'It just looks like we've shifted the malpractice from feeding the money machine to making inane, self-centric apps. Worse, is that the power players, institutional and individual — the highflying VCs, the entrepreneurship incubators, the top-ranked MBA programs, the accelerators, the universities, the business plan competitions have been complicit in this nonsense.' And while it may not get you invited to the White House, Nnaemeka advises entrepreneurs looking for ideas to 'consider looking beyond the city-centric, navel-gazing, youth-obsessed mainstream' and instead focus on some groups that no one else is helping."
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Too Many Smart People Chasing Too Many Dumb Ideas?

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  • Re:Mweeehhhh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mrmeval (662166) <> on Saturday June 01, 2013 @09:33AM (#43882419) Journal

    NO ONE IS *insert snot spewing sob* FUNDING ME! --Nnaemeka

    Nnaemeka you're a potential demulcent. I'm sure there's billions to be made from people rubbing bits of you on bits of them.

  • silly (Score:5, Insightful)

    by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @09:36AM (#43882435)
    I think there are lots of smart people helping those that fewer people care about (there are no groups that need help that nobody does), you just don't hear about it because they don't get invited to the White House.
  • by CmdrEdem (2229572) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @09:36AM (#43882441) Homepage

    the "best and brightest" will just go back to feed the money machine. After all, they are competent and they also need to eat when they`re bankrupt. VCs have money to spare and they will benefit either way.

  • Faulty premise (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @09:39AM (#43882449) Homepage

    The smart people don't really want to help the lower class. Ugh, have you actually met any of them? Shudder. If anything they should be vexed even more than they are already.

    What the smart people want is to be seen as helping the lower class. This gives you fantastic social status (among other smart people, naturally) and ensures that you will be invited to all the right parties. The lower class will themselves not be attending these parties. Again, a five minute conversation with any of them is quite enough.

  • He has a point (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Typical Slashdotter (2848579) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @09:50AM (#43882499)
    Everyone's so quick to attack, but he has a point. Whatever the cause, the tech industry seems to want its best and brightest to become toymakers. There are a lot a problems that could be helped by new tech, but none of that seems to be as glorious as working on the new iPhone, a better Google Maps, or the next hit app.
  • Re:Faulty premise (Score:3, Insightful)

    by justthinkit (954982) <> on Saturday June 01, 2013 @09:59AM (#43882531) Homepage Journal
    Replace "smart people" with "1%" and you've got it about right.
  • Re:Mweeehhhh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jythie (914043) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @10:03AM (#43882563)
    To be fair, one can look at it as a balance issue. The most capable people tend to shift their focus to the things society values the most, and right now we place a high social value on getting rich quick through finding some narcissistic niche and building something that appeals to it.

    The value of helping others, helping the underclass, solving systemic problems, building shared resources, things that elevate society as a whole rather then the privileged, well, these things are often argued about and I will not even attempt to claim one way or the other is 'best', but I think it is fair to express distress regarding shifts in what people value.

    Essentially, this is the same complaint as people talking about how we do not have enough STEM talent or too much manufacturing+research is moving offshore.
  • by mark_reh (2015546) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @10:07AM (#43882589) Journal

    the less fortunate is that you can't make any money off of them. Guys like Bill Gates, with all the money in the world, can afford to focus on that portion of the human population because they don't have to make money off of them. The rest of us have to eat and feed our families and send our kids to school.

  • Re:He has a point (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pla (258480) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @10:23AM (#43882697) Journal
    Everyone's so quick to attack, but he has a point. Whatever the cause, the tech industry seems to want its best and brightest to become toymakers. There are a lot a problems that could be helped by new tech, but none of that seems to be as glorious as working on the new iPhone, a better Google Maps, or the next hit app.

    Even the homeless and destitute in the US enjoy a standard of living far above that of the average human even a century ago. The middle class lives better than most historical kings and emperors.

    We value toys because we've made life too easy. We need to get up five days a week and spend a third of the day doing something we'd rather not; what then? That leaves a third of each day (not spent sleeping), and two whole days a week where we need to fill the time. Hell, today, I need to go out and mow the lawn, and I've already put it off wasting time online for three hours (and it'll only take me two to do the task) - Oh, boo-fuckin'-hoo, wontcha have some sympathy for poor ol' me, needing to trudge through the Sisyphean task of walking behind a machine that magically makes the grass shorter and packages it neatly in a bag for me? ;)

    Make no mistake, I do not glamorize work or hold the delusion that it somehow counts as in some way noble or good for the soul. But we've already won. We simply don't care about social-issue-X as much as we value cheap tasty calories and cheap immersive entertainment.
  • Re:Mweeehhhh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Grishnakh (216268) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @10:26AM (#43882717)

    Essentially, this is the same complaint as people talking about how we do not have enough STEM talent

    From what I've seen, almost all the people who complain that we don't have enough STEM talents are also people who, themselves, are not in STEM fields. If they think it's so important, why didn't they go into it?

    Basically, it's because the people complaining want a larger STEM workforce to make money from, but they don't work in it because they can't make nearly as much money in it as whatever they're doing. So they want other people to work their asses off for mediocre pay.

  • Re:Misdiagnosis (Score:1, Insightful)

    by roman_mir (125474) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @10:33AM (#43882755) Homepage Journal

    I feel the only cure is a guaranteed minimum income.

    - provided by??? You already have that, you have tens of millions of people on food stamps (snap), you have tens of millions of people not working ever, whether welfare or disability (real or imagined) or the never ending 'employment insurance', etc.

    What is it that you want more of, you want people to be born and raised into perpetually doing nothing at all with themselves?

    You already have that, many people end up killing themselves because of this nothingness.

    It's not true at all that there is this 'limited' amount of work out there, there are literally BILLIONS of people on this planet whose needs are NOT SATISFIED in more ways than one. How come you don't want your fellow citizens to work towards satisfying those needs in the free market and would rather see all those potential resources being wasted just because your ideology makes you feel good (because you are obviously not going to be the one being directly forced to subsidise this worthless crowd, and it's worthless if it does nothing of any use to other people).

  • Re:Mweeehhhh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Gorobei (127755) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @10:34AM (#43882757)

    To be fair, one can look at it as a balance issue. The most capable people tend to shift their focus to the things society values the most, and right now we place a high social value on getting rich quick through finding some narcissistic niche and building something that appeals to it.

    As you note, capable people focus on things that society values most. "Getting rich quick" is the result of producing what society values most, *not* the thing that society values most. So you make Facebook and get rich because society wants Facebook, not because it wants you to be rich.

    So I don't see what Nnaemeka wants to happen: society to invest more money in the underclass, or people to altruistically forgo riches to serve the underclass. Either one may be a noble goal, but he should at least articulate what he wants: he complains about us being to urban-focused, but over 80% of people in America live in an urban environment! And tech apps work better in a dense environment:, etc, isn't a business model for a farm community; the big stuff has already been done (,

  • Re:He has a point (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Grishnakh (216268) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @10:40AM (#43882773)

    There's more to it than that.

    You're right, there are a lot of problems that could be helped by new tech. Just look at transportation for instance: we spend a ton of money on it in the US, and it sucks: it's slow, we spend lots of time idling in traffic or at stoplights, our cars are driven by oil-burning, pollution-spewing horrifically inefficient engines, and 50,000 people die every year in auto accidents.

    Tech could solve a lot of problems outside the online world, but the problem is that you have to have a good government that invests wisely in R&D, or at least you need a regulatory scheme that makes it possible for new tech to improve the situation. Why deal with all that government red tape when you can spend all your time working on a "hit app", Google Maps, a new handheld electronic device, etc.? All those things don't have much red tape at all: you build whatever you want, you put it out in the market, and you make money with it right away. You don't have to deal with all kinds of governmental problems with them.

    Suppose I want to solve the transportation problem. An idea already exists: Personal Rapid Transit, such as SkyTran. It wouldn't be that hard to build; the passive maglev rails have already been built and proven to work, the computer/software tech needed for the cars to be autonomous is somewhat trivial compared to Google's infrastructure, and the cars themselves would be dirt-cheap compared to a modern car (gas or electric like Tesla). However, even if you could get funding for the initial R&D and production, there's more to building and deploying such a system than just getting a factory and building them: you have to get governments at all levels (federal down to local) to agree on it, to standardize on one system (so they can all link up), and new regulation set up to police it all and make sure it's safe, to secure right-of-way, etc. Add to that that it competes with existing technologies (namely GM, Ford, etc.), who have lobbyists who will try to shoot down anything that competes with privately-owned automobiles, just like they've done with various public transit systems in the past.

    Or how about aviation? Think you can invent a better aircraft? Good luck getting past the FAA.

    It's simply much easier to just sit at your computer and write a new software app. You don't have to deal with government regulators (who are applying decades-old regulations to brand-new ideas) when you do that.

  • Re:Mweeehhhh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SerpentMage (13390) <> on Saturday June 01, 2013 @10:42AM (#43882791)

    How is this funny? He is not trolling. If you read the article what he is getting at is that we are not solving the problem that move society forward. Case in point tumblr. Wow, what a piece of effen work! Yippeee! Or look at all of those one day camps of ideas. All related to simplistic systems, where the business model falls into, "lets make this so that we can get bought out." These days the idea is not about actually building a business that makes money.

    Case in point Ubuntu. This is a company that does try to push the boundary and does try to help, all while trying to make a business about it. Same thing with Redhat. Yet are they rewarded like say a Tumblr? I just crack up laughing that a TUmblr is worth a tenth of Redhat. you know a business that is actually making money and solving problems.

    Where is the real innovation? The uniqueness? Where are the plans that drive real businesses? I think that is a valid question.

  • Re:Misdiagnosis (Score:5, Insightful)

    by siride (974284) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @11:14AM (#43883027)

    Solyndra was one failure out of many many successes or break-evens. That's the market. The government didn't actively waste money on one bad idea, they've provided funded a whole range of companies, with the expectation (apparently lacking in conservative circles) that some would succeed and some would fail. They aren't picking winners and losers, they are picking a good area of the market that needs some help, and it's gotten some good help. Look at Tesla. It's going to be paying off its government loans early. And all of these companies have gotten considerably more in outside funding than from the government. The market thinks they are a good idea too, and the market probably understands that not all good ideas pan out for a variety of reasons.

    The federal budget is huge for three reasons: medicare/medicaid, social security and defense. You take out those three and you have a vastly smaller federal budget, which has been shrinking and shrinking over the years as we keep cutting those "wasteful" federal programs (by which I mean the ones that actually do useful stuff as opposed to providing a stopgap against a mismanaged healthcare system or lining the pockets of defense contractors). More importantly, though, is that the right has successfully convinced the public that academia and the public sector cannot be a source of good in society, and so there is now a concerted effort to destroy the ability for the government to do one of the few things government is actually good at (NSF funding provides great bang for buck over the long term), leaving R&D up to the fickle and short-sighted market. That's not to say the market is bad, but rather that there's a valid role for the public sector to play by virtue of its being outside of the market and disconnected from the short-term fluctuations and the need to make money NOW that the market requires. Also, the idea that we can contribute to a *res public* which will be a common effort to effect positive outcomes for society as a whole as part of the common good is dying a swift death. Government is evil, government is bad, working together (if there isn't a price tag or contract involved) is bad.

  • Re:Mweeehhhh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by otterpop81 (784896) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @12:11PM (#43883403)

    Why aren't they making the world better the way I think it should be done?!

    Because the industrial and economic policies of their governments are shifting them into increasingly valueless industries.

    It's easy to throw stones and walk away. It's harder to propose solutions. What do you propose?

  • by darkwing_bmf (178021) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @12:20PM (#43883471)

    when was the last time you saw something truely original or innovative?

    Smart Phones
    Self Driving Cars
    Private space flight
    Crowd funding
    Growing body parts from stem cells
    Mars exploration
    Discovery of planets around other stars

    I wonder how boring a life would be to not recognize these things as new and wonderful.

  • by hey! (33014) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @12:45PM (#43883645) Homepage Journal

    I developed a very serious mobile app back way in the mid-90s for public health and disease surveillance. Let me tell you from experience why an app that people rely upon every day for critical work is no way to strike it rich. People *need* a lot of support for that kind of app. Support equals labor, and labor is expensive. Businesses with high expenses don't get rich unless they can command huge prices.

    When smartphones came along, my partner used to gnash his teeth at stories of developers scoring windfalls with ringtones or stupid little games, and here we were doing *important* work and only making an OK living. I pointed out that if somebody pays $1.99 for something to amuse himself, he's never going to call tech support. When something represents a total investment of fifty to a hundred thousand dollars in hardware, software and system integration services, he damn well is going to call tech support. But 50K isn't really that much money if you include hardware, third party software licenses, QC'ing the client's existing data and converting it, training the administrators and end uses, and negotiating with IT gatekeepers. That's what you have to face when you do work that everyone agrees is important. Yes, people are willing to spend real money on important problems, but they also subject you to higher standards, intense scrutiny, and exacting ongoing demands, and those things eat into your profits. And the only way to get rich in business is to generate profits -- and salary you pay yourself for your labor IS AN EXPENSE.

    That's why the $1.99 app somebody buys on a whim to amuse himself is bound to be more profitable than *important* software that somebody relies on to do something important -- no matter how much you charge for that software. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Software that is a cheaper, more convenient alternative to something someone already has (e.g. Skype) is practical because what it does may be important, but that software itself is at first dispensable.

    Look at the vast amounts of cash going into develop "social media"; it is no accident that most of it goes to support is so trivia. Trivia is profitable. It's easier to try radical new things in the trivial. A lot more people have an early adopter stance towards a service like Facebook than they do to towards things they regard as critical. They take convincing and hand-holding. That's why something like Google Wave couldn't get off the ground, you have to approach something as important as collaboration much more conservatively, usually working around how people already do things (e.g. Sharepoint).

  • by Qbertino (265505) on Saturday June 01, 2013 @01:03PM (#43883783)

    People who will change society by orders of magnitude a few decades or centuries down the road are considered borderline insane today.

    Actually, by the usual measure they often _are_ borderline insane. RMS is a great example. His ragging on about GNU/Linux instead of Linux etc., his appalling table manners (I've heard first hand that they are bound to make you throw up), etc. are mannerisms that cloud the greatness of the ideals he holds dearest. His deed of introducing the GPL and putting is power where his mouth is ang giving us the GPL and the GNU Toolkit will have more positive consequences for humanity further down the road than a Mark Zuckerberg could only dream of. And every expert knows this.

    It's quite common that people really helping humanity move forward become famous only after they've died - if at all - and society gradually grows to see what they did for us all or what they saw coming (Ada Livingston, Tesla, ...). And if they do experience fame themselves, it's not unlikely that they are in trouble for their ideas and insights (Galilei, US founding fathers, founders of the German republic, etc.). ...

    That all been said, I have to second the initial claim that there basically is a solid measure of decadence, especially in the field of IT, that is leading us nowhere. I've spent my recent years scrum mastering for browsergames, fiddling with FOSS CMSes (and we all agree that the world surely does not need any more of those) and now techleading the development of travel booking sites. With all the power as a developer and IT expert at my hands today nothing to brag about, really.

    However, I *do* have a daughter and she needs to be put well on her way, and if assigning tickets to webdevs for the next generic webapp is what helps me follow through with my responsibility, I guess I'll have to swallow my pride until she's out of the house and on her own. Then I might actually finally drop IT as a main career all together and put my skills into action for some greater cause, such as protecting/defending the environment or pushing for some advancement in womans rights somewhere or something.

    My 2 cents.

  • Re:Mweeehhhh (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 01, 2013 @01:33PM (#43883959)

    > "Getting rich quick" is the result of producing what society values most, *not* the thing that society values most.

    Total bollocks. "get rich quick" is the result of producing what most efficiently gives you richness. Most of society isn't even aware of the mechanisms that are involved in such a process, even if they are invisibly contributing to them.

    How did you get moderated to +5? Oh, I know - because slashdot values your comments most, yeah that would be it.

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