Web Meets World: Tim O’Reilly’s Bullshit Keynote

Posted on September 24, 2008
Filed Under Web 2.0 Kool Aid |

I recently called Tim O’Reilly out for the comments he made during his keynote at the Web 2.0 Expo which were in direct conflict with his past hype promulgation.

I took the time to watch O’Reilly’s keynote earlier and had to cover my nose - it’s a mix of revisionist history, backtracking, fearmongering, greenwashing and political propaganda.

From calling Dell’s just-in-time inventory strategy an example of the “collective intelligence” concept he thinks Web 2.0 stands for to discussing all of the problems that exist in the world today, O’Reilly covers a lot of ground as he tries to add substance to a conference that has historically been about fluff.

The just of O’Reilly’s keynote: we live in troubled times and the talents of the type of people who work in the technology industry are needed to solve them.

I won’t disagree that we live in challenging times and in fact, I couldn’t help but note that O’Reilly mentions many of the same types of challenges I’ve been using to highlight just how out of touch with reality Web 2.0 (and the technology industry in general) has been.

Yet O’Reilly’s position is foolish (and disingenuous) for the following reasons:

Frankly, while I’m sure O’Reilly truly believes technology has the power to make the world a better place, I think he and people like him are misguided.

Let’s put this in perspective: Tim O’Reilly went to Harvard University, lives in the bourgeois hippie enclave of Sebastopol, California (where his parents had a summer home) and sent his daughters to a private high school that currently charges tuition of over $30,000/year. Oh, and his company generates tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year.

Thus, it’s real easy for a individuals like O’Reilly to discuss the challenges the world faces in abstract form. Isn’t Instedd a cool way to detect infectious diseases? Isn’t Ushahidi great for crowdsourcing information about crises? Isn’t Witness an awesome way to track human rights abuses? Isn’t AMEE a cool tool for tracking carbon data?

But let’s get real - none of these things is going to have a meaningful impact in the real world. The reason? These things are usually produced by well-intentioned idealists who usually don’t experience the challenges they’re trying to solve. They create things “to make the world a better place,” not because they’re realistically going to help solve a real need.

O’Reilly speaks with passion about technology’s contribution to civilization but passion doesn’t trump pragmatism and passion isn’t always inspired by reality.

Take O’Reilly’s comment on carbon markets:

By the way I think the whole carbon market thing could be huge if we coordinate our response there.

Could be huge? It is huge - over $60 billion in carbon credits were traded in 2007 and that number has likely already been surpassed this year. Yet it’s nothing more than a money transfer system creating big profits for investors and is doing very little to actually curb the carbon emissions that are supposedly causing “global warming.”

The same dynamic exists in cleantech - investors aren’t pouring money into “green technologies” because it’s “the right thing to do.” They’re doing it to make green, and increasingly they’re doing so because they’ve realized that the right investments structured properly give access to subsidies and tax breaks.

Case in point: a few weeks ago I was speaking with a hedge fund manager in New York who mentioned that one of his funds is going to reap tax benefits from the cleantech investments it’s making. In other words, a substantial part of his investment decisions were driven by the tax benefits, not by the potential impact the companies he’s funding could realistically make.

But I digress.

At the end of the day, techies aren’t going to “make a better world using the power of the Web.” And for all of O’Reilly’s fearmongering, greenwashing, inspirational hyperbole and political pandering, his words are meaningless.

Not only does O’Reilly not put his money where his mouth is, his conferences contribute to the very problems he complains about. After all, how much carbon is emitted because at O’Reilly conferences and by the people who fly in to attend them? How many trees have been chopped down to print his books over the years? Of course, I’m sure O’Reilly will tell you that he prints on recycled paper.

Frankly, there’s something quite off-putting about techies and bourgeois hippies running around spewing their anthropocentric bullshit about “saving the world” when half the time, they spend more time behind computer screens and using gadgets than they do actually experiencing the world. Make no mistake about it: most of these people are doing what they do because of the endorphin boost they get from thinking that they’re making a difference.

In conclusion, I believe there’s a lot of intellectual dishonesty in Tim O’Reilly’s keynote and I’ll end this rant by stating with certainty: the people who are “making the world a better place” aren’t thinking in terms of abstract concepts such as “collective intelligence” and they’re not paying over $1,000 to attend fluff fests like the Web 2.0 Expo.

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2 Responses to “Web Meets World: Tim O’Reilly’s Bullshit Keynote”

  1. k on September 24th, 2008 2:13 pm

    Obviously, I like technology or I wouldn’t be reading this blog. But, I don’t think there is much money to be made by web2.0 companies. In my line of work, I’ve become acquainted with several Web2.0 companies that were looking for investment. None of them had a clear means of monetization. This doesn’t seem to be an unique problem. It seems the only people who ever made money off
    of these companies were consultants and attorneys.

  2. From the Pipeline - 9.24.08 - WinExtra on September 24th, 2008 10:26 pm

    […] Web Meets World: Tim O’Reilly’s Bullshit Keynote :: Drama 2.0 - I don’t know who the writer is for this site is but I sure love his/her style - warms a cranky old fart’s heart. […]

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Drama 2.0 spikes the Web 2.0 kool aid by providing critical analyses of Web 2.0, its people, its startups and its impact on the world of media. Other topics are explored when Drama 2.0 has been drinking too much 1975 Dom Perignon. Read more about the Internet's version of Keyser Söze here.