Wednesday, November 13, 2013

NY Tech Meetup and the Delusion of Optimism

When I was in New York, I had the opportunity to attend the November meeting of the oddly named "New York Tech Meetup" at NYU's Skirball Center. The November meeting is reserved for academic presentations, e.g. presentations of new technology (or old technology) by universities and schools, professors and students. We had 20 presentations and each lasting about 3 minutes long.

High School students frisbee throwing robot that failed to throw frisbees

We had one set of students who had used image understanding software to cheat at completing jigsaw puzzles. Another group of students (high schoolers) had built a robot that threw frisbees. We had a Harvard based group of people who showed their website that allowed programs to be written with a visible programming language from MIT that allowed you to snap pieces of programs together. And we had our own NYU Media Research Lab show the current status of a very inexpensive immersive reality system that used about $500 in parts.

Backstage at Skirball with Ken Perlin and Students getting the immersive reality demo to work

But the audience was the most impressive part.  Maybe 500 to 600 people, all enthusiastic, all well dressed, all maybe 25-45 years old.   All of them ready to do that big tech startup and get rich!

When it was all over, we had a reception hosted by, I think, Google.  On the 10th floor, a view of Manhattan, and filled with enthusiastic people "networking".

So you know me, Mr Reality here.  Mr Sourpuss here.  I go and find the organizers and complement them, but mention one little issue I had:  "It was all so upbeat" I said. "It was all so optimistic"

"Well, whats the matter with that?" they asked.

You do realize that there is 25% unemployment in this country, right? That there are more people on food stamps today than have ever been, and it is not because of some stupid right wing craziness about lazy people. That 9 out of 10 startups fail, right? You know that, right?

They just looked at me in horror and turned away.

Sorry to spoil their party, I guess.

NY Tech Meetup:

This PS may be unnecessary, it may actually be in a comment.  So read the comments!  -- MW

P.S. Ok, the point has been made by one of our NY correspondents that this is a bit too negative.  In fact, even if 9 of 10 fail, the 1 surviving may end up hiring all the others. Also, we should not fail to encourage those who might improve themselves by their own initiative.   OK, sure, I agree with this, but let us not on the other hand have unbounded optimism either.  Many will fail, and failure can be painful and destructive.

Also, I feel rather strongly that if you want to succeed in America, it is helpful to have a lot of money. It is possible to succeed without a lot of money, but it is a lot harder.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Michael,

    I disagree with the general tenor of this posting (though I love your blog in general!)

    While it's true that 9 out of 10 startups fail, those which succeed often wind up hiring lots of people and spawning entirely new industries. That's really a major engine of growth in the economy. I don't know the statistics, but I'm pretty sure we'd be in a more sorry state if it wasn't all the startups (remember Google itself was a startup just 10 or 15 years ago).

    But more importantly, I'd say that the whole entrepreneurial spirit is something inherently good in itself...people believing they can make a difference in their own lives (and for others) by dint of their own initiative. It's one of the great things about being alive and being human! In much of the world and for much of human history, that sense of opportunity doesn't/didn't exist. So it's something to be celebrated even if it doesn't always work out as hoped for. So I'd like you to consider writing a blog entry entitled "the delusion of pessimism (and cynicism)" -- that would be a motherlode! :-)