Monday, January 14, 2008

Post-structuralism for Dollars in Silicon Valley

On the eve of one of our grand theatrical spectacles, featuring one of our industry's undisputed showmen as emcee, let's pause for a minute and imagine that we've got our mental map of the tech world all wrong. We've been drawing lines not just in the wrong places, but where the model isn't about lines at all. As a result, we're misunderstanding ourselves and a lot of other stuff. And, since the economy doesn't care about our degree of self-awareness, it means we all -- entrepreneurs, investors, engineers, designers, marketers, journalists -- are leaving big money on the table.

I'm hoping that last sentence might catch someone's attention, especially that of the VCs who have a lot to gain or to lose based on their understandings or misunderstandings.

Where do we draw lines by mistake? We live in a structuralist mythology that we make up because it's easy and it's a shared set of beliefs that we can use to argue (in circles sometimes):

  • The "new" versus the "old" is of course the big daddy duality
  • How about Client / server, Startup / enterprise
  • Geek / management, Engineering / marketing
  • East Coast / West Coast, Stanford / Berkeley
  • Open source / proprietary
  • Content / code
  • NorCal / SoCal, Hollywood / Silicon Valley
  • Entertaining / Functional

These just scratch the surface -- you can probably think of fifty pairs of your own now, along with examples of how they are convenient, self-reinforcing, and yet ultimately invalid.

They are a cliche, but they own the conversation. I want to talk about the last few pairs: think of the narratives we make and live inside, as regards Northern California vs. Southern California, Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley, and Entertaining vs. Functional.

Now look at Steve Jobs, an entertainer who could get his fans to poke out their own eyes and get in line for an iPatch. Apple is theater, the Apple store a set, a Disney experience for people who feel superior making snarky comments about Disney. Do you really think computer geniuses work at the Genius Bar? "Space may be the final frontier / But it's made in a Hollywood basement" -- and in this case the fans have already reserved tickets to the sequel.

But, wait! I'm not bashing Apple or Steve -- that would be buying into the very dualism I'm pointing up here...

Now consider also: we have another award show, the Crunchies, coming up. Before you laugh, remember this event isn't intended as a joke. And donating money to charity doesn't make you serious, just generous.

We have our gossip writers, our A-lists and even our stunts that get a third of the Valley looking self-consciously at the floor, embarrassed at having to wonder whether Carly Fiorina or Leah Culver has set feminism back further, a third watching our great-standup-with-the-dirty-mouth pretending they all get the joke, and another third just saying the heck with it and jumping on.

Ya know, maybe we're not so far away from our SoCal cousins as we think. And just to keep it clear: I'm not saying there's a middle position, a compromise, where we're all gonna end up. I'm saying that the duality itself is a fiction. So there is no middle. Until we get this, we're going to continue to have a heck of a time getting some things right. Or making money with them!

Like what? Like things that aren't quite code and aren't quite content. We never got SVG right, because it didn't fit into the categories we thought made up the world.

Is a Flash media code or content? When my mom gets an e-card, she thinks it's content, not an app.

We don't have a cross-platform vector graphics standard in 2008 (!) ... because practical vector graphics in the real world means some logic as well as geometry.

Why can music acts sell (via the carriers) all manner of wallpapers and ringtones for cold hard cash to technically unsophisticated folks, and we still can't get the average person to install or run a mobile app on their phone for free? We're playing that game wrong and we can't see it.

We have every manner of "media center" -- hardware, software, open, closed, expensive, free. Even Microsoft has been in on the act for five years now. And I still don't know any regular folks at all who use any of them.

We have tons of great ideas on the shelves because we can't understand 'the other' well enough to make the deals we need on content licensing. (They don't understand us either.)

Three quarters of "Web 2.0" is not about any kind of functionality at all; it's not even about interaction design. It's about the glossiest thinnest veneer of user experience. It's about buttons and realistic smoke ... the kind of thing that some folks refer to as "production values." Moreover, three quarters of it is free and ad-supported. Not unlike most radio and television. Unlike radio and television, its reach is minimal. Ask your aunt in Duluth what is. Before we spend another session making fun of the studios for not realizing where their business really is, we might think about what an adjustment in ad rates will do to our own.

One last time for the folks in the cheap seats: it's not about right or wrong, steak or sizzle. We're just not where we like to think we are. We're somewhere else. To get a better idea where we are, we need to do some demolition on our usual Monday morning narratives. It's uncomfortable. The good news is, there's a ton of opportunity. And eventually it feels good to realize we've outgrown the notion that the world is flat.

Now go to Macworld and enjoy the, uh, show.

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