A mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, a chemical engineer, an environmental engineer, and a web developer decided to get a house and become roommates. On move-in day, they discovered they had a rat in the basement. Being smart people, they all decided to split off, come up with their own solutions and then meet up at the end of the day to discuss a plan of action.
When they reconvened, the mechanical engineer proudly showed off a CAD model of an elaborate trap which he was sure would confine the rat and allow them to dispose of it. The electrical engineer showed off the design for an electrified grid that would fry the rat. The chemical engineer presented an ingenious poison that was lethal to the rat but harmless to humans. The environmental engineer produced a cat, which she claimed would be at the top of the food chain the basement produce the desired ecology there. Last to present was the web developer.
“You guys are idiots,” he chuckled, as he produced a MacBook Pro with Google Chrome open to the URL baseme.nt.
“What the hell is this?” asked the mechanical engineer. ”
Oh, I rewrote the entire basement in HTML5, with no rats” said the web developer, “Problem solved.”
“Are you kidding me?” asked the electrical engineer. “How does that take care of the rat?”
“What do you mean?” the web developer replied. “The code is rat free.” A gleam came into his eye as he added “There are no rats in the cloud, you know.”
As he noticed his roommates’ eyes rolling, the web developer continued “Look guys, I’ve already started a company with this and gotten $20M in Series A funding. Baseme.nt is gonna be HUGE. A *real* game changer. It’s gonna shift the paradigm of what it means to be truly connected. We’re going mobile too, the app’s dropping next week.”
The environmental engineer was stunned. “Who’s ‘we?'” she asked.
The web dev pointed to a rag tag group of people in the living room talking excitedly while hunched over laptops and tablets.
“Our TechCrunch article just went live!” one of them, a tall pale youth in a plaid shirt with windswept hair, announced to the cheers of the others.
“Hear that?” said the web dev. “We’re crushing it.”
The joke ends in the previous part. If you choose to retell it, Part 1 will usually suffice unless you’re giving a talk somewhere (presumably not in Silicon Valley).
The above describes my view of most of Silicon Valley’s “problem solving.” Most of it is investment-attractive but largely useless projects that don’t impact the really large real world problems we face, such as energy. In fact, there’s very little evidence the Silicon Valley approach works for large scale problems upon whose solution the future of civilization depends at all. Solyndra went bankrupt. Tesla Motors has been somewhat successful, but their cars only shift power generation from onboard engines to the grid and are still unaffordable to most people. Bloom Energy just got hit with appalling labor violations: turns out “clean energy” comes at the cost of workers’ rights and illegal labor.* What a surprise! Apple was riding high as the world’s most valuable company, until investors realized Exxon-Mobil probably had a brighter and more stable future than a company that cranks out cutesy gadgets and seems determined to kill off its most practical products and isolate mission-critical users.
Now I’m not saying Silicon Valley’s methods are completely bunk, but they’re not the silver bullet for every problem. The next time you hear or read of someone droning on about Silicon Valley having the solution to everything, be sure to point them back here.
*Meanwhile, projects such as Keystone XL that could put thousands of legally present people to work and pump billions into the economy get caught up in Washington red tape. But I digress.