When talking about his investment in Planetary Resources–a company envisioning mining rare materials in space–Larry Page talks about „A healthy ignorance for the impossible.” When Elon Musk speaks about going to Mars, he talks about „the last opportunity to save mankind.” The press loves these statements and happily writes about the crazy Silicon Valley guys who make everything possible.
I love these bold visions, but within the last weeks I’ve felt more and more irritated by them. What irritates me about these statements is the fact that Silicon leaders seem to have started a new kind of competition, a competition focused on formulating the most outrageous vision. Affordable, privately financed space flights are not fancy enough anymore. We need to go to Mars soon. Eliminating cancer is no longer a major achievement. According to Larry Page, it will „only“ add 3 years of life expectancy.
This rhetoric is closely related to a new kind of product presentation. When Tesla launches a new niche car, it’s now a major event. Enthusiastic bloggers are happily reporting that Elon Musk claims not only to have created the greatest electric car, but also the best car overall. They forget that his technology is not ready for prime time (yet). When Google presents prototypes of their self-driving car, I see myself driving one of these cars next year, ignoring that we are quite far away from mass adoption of this amazing technology.
I’m very excited that the same Silicon Valley that established the start-up as a status symbol and gave successful founders a rockstar status, now establishes an excitement about technology. But Page, Musk and Peter Thiel must be careful not to become pure sales guys driven by public relations experts. Yes, Thiel is right when he talks about technology being a major force of our future, but Silicon Valley has to admit that technology will not solve all the problems. Technology can’t solve our problems without the right policies.
Policies will be the key to free us from the burden of driving our cars on our own. Social science is as important as technology to overcome problems of aging societies. Melinda and Bill Gates are saving thousands of lives by using low tech solutions and convincing people to make bold claims.
Please cool down a little bit on your technological rhetoric. Please do not disappoint us by making bold statements just to generate a PR buzz. We need excitement about technology, but we also have to have a clear focus on what’s important.