In defense of “startcraps”

How toys can become tools — if we give them the chance

“[Bell and Hubbard would] install one of their “telephone devices” in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?…we see no reason why a group of outsiders, with extravagant and impractical ideas, should be entertained, when they have not the slightest idea of the true problems involved. Mr. G.G. Hubbard’s fanciful predictions, while they sound rosy, are based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the technical and economic facts of the situation, and a posture of ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy…”

Internal Western Union memo outlining reasons not to buy Bell’s patent for the telephone for $100,000

I ran across this blog post the other day bemoaning the state of the modern tech industry, classifying the majority of modern startups as “startcraps”, or companies that aren’t solving real problems. Instead the author suggests the goal of software developers should be to create “automats…entities relieving people from repetitive labour” and that employees working for the current wave of presumably ethereal modern startups should just quit.

On the one hand I understand the author’s annoyance: I’ll admit that I often see a company getting millions of dollars in VC funding and I think “what a waste of money” or “that will never work”. But the truth of the matter is that I have no way to know if I’m correct— and neither does the author of Startcraps.

Although many startups are are in fact ill-conceived for the reasons the author cites (their focus is in fact too narrow or doesn’t solve a broad need), some of them will go on to become successful for very good reasons that we can’t yet anticipate. They may seem like useless toys, but it may turn out that they actually have lasting utility. Paul Graham dismisses the knee-jerk reaction against the “startcrap” brilliantly in his essay How to Get Startup Ideas:

“Just as trying to think up startup ideas tends to produce bad ones, working on things that could be dismissed as “toys” often produces good ones. When something is described as a toy, that means it has everything an idea needs except being important. It’s cool; users love it; it just doesn’t matter. But if you’re living in the future and you build something cool that users love, it may matter more than outsiders think. Microcomputers seemed like toys when Apple and Microsoft started working on them. I’m old enough to remember that era; the usual term for people with their own microcomputers was “hobbyists.” BackRub seemed like an inconsequential science project. The Facebook was just a way for undergrads to stalk one another.”

The author of Startcraps seems particularly annoyed with social media companies like Facebook (mocking companies that have “move fast and break things plastered all over the place” — which is, in fact, plastered all over Facebook’s halls) and Twitter (“we are creating more repetitive labour for people by making them check yet another stream of updates”).

Yet Facebook, for me and many others, does in fact meet the definition of an automat; instead of lengthy phone conversations about photos about cats or red pandas and hedgehogs (the author’s examples, not mine) you can simply discuss the fauna of the animal kingdom when you have the time — or never, if red pandas don’t interest you at all. The deep utility and consumer hunger for easy-to-use, multimedia, asynchronous communication was not obvious when Facebook launched but became its core strength, allowing you to keep in touch with many people you might lose contact with if the modern world still required you to talk to someone right now and do only that. They took the strength of the web — ultimate freedom of expression — and directly addressed the biggest obstacle to adoption for the public, removing the cold, impersonal, vastness of the place, a place where anonymity reigned and interaction with your meatspace friends was intermittent. Maybe the author is right when he says that his generation “is the most spoilt generation I know” — he seems to suffer the exact short-sightedness that he bemoans in his peers. Facebook has made communication exponentially easier for many of its users. Social media seemed like a toy to most people, but as someone who used a rotary phone I’m old enough to remember that era, and I can assure you that Facebook has lasting utility and most people were dead wrong.

The author also seems to presume that all real problems have obvious (if difficult) solutions, and that limiting ourselves to only working on tech problems precludes us from focusing on the larger, more pressing corporeal problems of the world:

“We limit ourselves to only apply computers and networks. There are issues out there waiting to be solved that would involve also logistics, politics, “blood and sweat” physical labour, geology, medicine or x.”

Yet Twitter, which deluges people with a “stream of updates”, has actually affected real change in the world in ways its founders never anticipated. As a broadcasting “toy” it has played a major role as the primary mode of communication during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 (other similar examples can be found here) and more recently as a driving force to organize the backlash against the religious freedom act in Indiana (#indianaboycott) and the awareness surrounding the events in Ferguson (#BlackLivesMatter). Twitter in fact directly addresses one of the specific use cases he wished “real” startups would help with — politics — and it does it by focusing on computers and networks. Virtually no one could have accurately predicted that a messaging system limited to 140 characters would become an automat that helps fuel revolutions or overturn laws.

Just a bunch of people supplying a “stream of updates” in Egypt in 2011

Sharing economy startups like Uber have the potential to solve logistics for much more than human passengers, but they’re just toys right now. Drones and 3D-printing have the potential to solve blood-and-sweat physical labor problems for people, but they’re just toys right now. Wearables have the potential to change our entire approach to medicine from reactive treatment to data-driven prevention, but they’re just toys right now.

I guarantee you the first hit application for the Apple Watch won’t be the modern equivalent of the Tricorder. It will probably be some silly app to have virtual lightsaber battles with your friends. But we shouldn’t dismiss it as just a toy — it might not be for long.

“Toys” can be powerful tools after an incubation period in which unexpected uses of the technology emerge and prove to provide real utility.

How many of these buttons did you actually use when you were 14 years old?

The thing is, you have to play with a toy for a while before it can be used as a tool. When I was about 14 I was given a TI-82 calculator to use in a math class. Although I came to love statistics, did not immediately start writing T-tests. Instead I explored. I played with its basic functionality, I simply added numbers together — my favorite was to create factorials (5 * 5 * 5 * 5 * 5 = 120), and I also got really good at guessing square roots for any number under 1000 off the top of my head through guess and check. (I’m the life of the party. Me and the first-100-digits-of-Pi-guy.) These skills are not immediately useful for statistics or data science. But I had fun and got to play. Only later did I learn about standard deviations and things like k-means clustering and begin to use the calculator for more practical solutions that met the author’s pedigree of an automat.

The next great automat may already be out there , it just might look like a toy — for now.

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