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« Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad: A Response to Gorman | Main | Mis-understanding Fred Wilson's 'Age and Entrepreneurship' argument »

June 16, 2007

The Future Belongs to Those Who Take The Present For Granted: A return to Fred Wilson's "age question"

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Posted by Clay Shirky

My friend Fred Wilson had a pair of posts a few weeks back, the first arguing that youth was, in and of itself an advantage for tech entrepreneurs, and the second waffling on that question with idea that age is a mindset.

I think Fred got it right the first time, and I said so at the time, in The (Bayesian) Advantages of Youth:

I’m old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience. I know that music comes from stores. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that if you need to take a trip, you visit a travel agent. In the last 15 years or so, I’ve had to unlearn those things and a million others. This makes me a not-bad analyst, because I have to explain new technology to myself first — I’m too old to understand it natively. But it makes me a lousy entrepreneur.
Today, Fred seems to have returned to his original (and in my view correct) idea in The Age Question (continued):
It is incredibly hard to think of new paradigms when you’ve grown up reading the newspaper every morning. When you turn to TV for your entertainment. When you read magazines on the train home from work. But we have a generation coming of age right now that has never relied on newspapers, TV, and magazines for their information and entertainment.[…] The Internet is their medium and they are showing us how it needs to be used.

This is exactly right.

I think the real issue, of which age is a predictor, is this: the future belongs to those who take the present for granted. I had this thought while talking to Robert Cook of Metaweb, who are making Freebase. They need structured metadata, lots of structured metadata, and one of the places they are getting it is from Wikipedia, by spidering the bio boxes (among other things) for things like birthplace and age of people listed Freebase. While Andrew Keen is trying to get a conversation going on whether Wikipedia is a good idea, Metaweb takes it for granted as a stable part of the environment, which lets them see past this hurdle to the next one.

This is not to handicap the success of Freebase itself — it takes a lot more than taking the present for granted to make a successful tool. But one easy way to fail is to assume that the past is more solid than it is, and the present more contingent. And the people least likely to make this mistake — the people best able to take the present for granted — are young people, for whom knowing what the world is really like is as easy as waking up in the morning, since this is the only world they’ve ever known.

Some things improve with age — I wouldn’t re-live my 20s if you paid me — but high-leverage ignorance isn’t one of them.

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


COMMENTS

1. calvin on June 16, 2007 8:40 PM writes...

you raise an interesting point. but it's two sided.

like our current administration who didn't believe it should listen to the people who had been around the block, or follow the rules that lots of good people had figured out, the argument you make leads to reinventing to wheel. and Re-making, the mistakes others already figured out how not to make.

There are essentially, two forces at work. One is accelerated change. The younger generation accepts changes more easily. But it's not because they are younger. The other factor is history. And age is typically a substitute for history.

Your point about metaweb's use of wikipedia is well taken. But that metaweb accepts wikipedia as a given, while others argue it's merits, is not a function of age. it is simply efficacious.

I would argue that approaches like metaweb's are probably misguided. semantic data storage and other big sky, structured organizing efforts have both deep epistemological/ontological problems and a long history of impracticality. These approaches have been around FOREVER. And by forever, I mean hundreds of years.

But, I'll admit it's hard to argue with young kids that think, "if only we could categorize everything in the right way, then we could find the right stuff really fast!" It's really hard to imagine that the world is not as structured as so many people make it out to be... until you discover it for yourself.

so please. it's one thing to make an argument for skills that allow for adaption to rapid change. But you should also point out the importance of deep understanding, and learning history. Neither one has that much to do with age. Rather they are functions of experience, intelligence and openness.

Permalink to Comment

2. mikael bergkvist on June 16, 2007 11:19 PM writes...

I started to invent stuff after I was 35, and has numerous patents now, and also this site here, http://www.xindesk.com, so I dont buy this at all.
You are solely responsible if your brain clogs up, no one else.

Permalink to Comment

3. Martijn Kriens on June 17, 2007 5:17 AM writes...

Considering the examples everybody is giving I think the main conclusion is that you have to be male to be to whom the future belongs ....

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4. Alex Roshuk on June 17, 2007 8:44 AM writes...

I wasn't stupid or out of touch in my 20s and I am not stupid or out of touch with the present in my 50s. I went to college (Princeton) and one of my BSEE classmates from the mid-70s seems to me to have invented the computer virus; my roommate from then Andy Rappaport certainly isn't out of touch with the present either. Here is an example: I was one of the early adopters of Wikipedia and at one point in 2003-04 was one of the top 100 volunteer editors when it was not even listed by Alexa.com. I was one of their first legal advisors (I am a lawyer in private practice in NYC) in 2003 and helped then Jimmy Wales write Wikimedia's bylaws, obtain a 501(c)(3) letter, register trademarks, amongst a lot of other legal help I gave to the early inner circle at Wikimedia Foundation, all of which I did for two years pro bono as a volunteer until I was replaced by a corporate lawyer half my age who did not really understand anything about high technology but who was much better than hype than me and demanded they pay him (somehow when you do something for altruistic purposes it is worthless to you corporate capitalist types). Last year I quit dealing with Wikipedia and Wikimedia because, in part, I realize that the people who control Wikipedia are really amateurs who did not respect people who had knowledge (beyond knowing the simple skills of PHP that any high school student can learn). Successful twenty and thirty somethings for the most part have no idea of the wisdom of their elders, they are arrogant and close-minded in ways that astound me because they have the mistaken belief they "know" everything or have access to "all the free knowledge of the world". Many younger "crowd/mob" members seems to think that the present is the only thing that exists and that all "knowledge" exists on the internet, and sadly, as anyone who has done any serious study of this technological phenomenon knows, is not true -- there is a lot of "knowledge" and/or "information" that will never make its way onto the public internet, thus it will never be all inclusive or authoritative. This naive epistemological assumption might appear to be "true" (as the output of a NAND gate can be true or false) amongst a particular subset of H1B visa holders and a few other people that have to know the latest skill set in order to be "successful", but really, Andrew Keen is right on the mark, Wikpedia, Google and YouTube like all the Web 2.0 "hot stuff" are not the new open media giving us the best new writers, artists, pundits, etc. These devices are just the the tools of a revolution that is tearing apart a lot of old stuff, but like most revolutionary movements they will also be discarded and be replaced with something that has to have greater respect for history, culture and includes the best of the past as well as the present, not some high-tech flash in the pan thing that just generates a cute little pile of cash for people that have no real respect for the very serious knowledge and even wisdom that exists in the minds of those who have the experience to crystalize these attributes of culture into profound artifacts of culture, not just amateurish jibberish. No phenomenon will replace our current cultural institutions unless it includes the people who have the experience to apply it to the real world in mature ways that combine technology with culture, history and knowledge. The future is not just a bunch of mostly teenager volunteers cutting and pasting web site info into a wiki (which is basically what Wikipedia is all about and what Jimmy Wales new plans for a "revolutionary" open source search engine will mostly be, no more than that, really) and think if they can "google" it (yes, use it as a verb so they loose they tm protection) and find a paragraph about any subject thus making them instant "experts" on that subject who can post a video about it edited with Final Cut Pro on youtube. Big deal! It does not impress me much nor the lot who have much more serious things to do with their time like building anti-role-player "vice squads" in 3D MMORPGs on SL, ;-).

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5. David Straus on June 17, 2007 8:48 AM writes...

I've been reading the entire set of threads on this discussion. It is so amazing simplistic. It is kind of sad. All old people X and all young people y. Change the old/young combination to some races and you have the same simplistic prejudice that gets people fired. I know young people who still read the paper and old folks who are just amazing at seeing and extrapolating and radically shifting. Like everything in life, when you simplify your analysis to this basic a level, you assume a lot and miss so much more.

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6. Anonymous on June 17, 2007 11:07 AM writes...

David, if the question is experience, then the X/Y analysis is pretty accurate. Older people have more experience than younger people, no? When experience is valuable, age is valuable; when it isn't, then it isn't.

And when experience is a liability, then age is a liability. This does not mean that every young person is a better entrepreneur than every old person. All the outraged people writing to say they invented UUCP when they were 63 have revealed themselves to be vulnerable to the simplest statistical mistake in the world -- "Well, smoking can't cause cancer, cause my great-aunt smoked 3 packs a day and livee to 87."

Here's the thesis in a package that may help you get the statistical sense of the argument: when a revolution like today's is afoot, a higher percentage of world-changing businesses will be founded by young people than old people, and this is because they have a mental advantage in seeing whats possible without looking through the dark glass of the past, as we older people do.

This is not a thesis that is falsified by showing that one old person founded one great company, it is a thesis that can be falsified by showing that more world-changing tech businesses are founded by old people.

Good luck with gathering the evidence for that. You be sure to come back and let us know what you found.

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7. Techie from NYC on June 17, 2007 11:19 AM writes...

What's really frustrating about this is that the underlying "age good, old bad" attitudes infects the entire industry. I'm 40, have an MBA, and have been working as a tech professional since 1995. Even in this job market, I'm finding it harder and harder to get a job, and I have come to believe that it's because of my age.

I love this business and I still have plenty to contribute -- including the experience of having had my own startup and working at several others. And I can't get a job.

What are all us 40-something technologists supposed to do? Conveniently disappear into obscurity?

Permalink to Comment

8. Clay Shirky on June 17, 2007 11:29 AM writes...

"What are all us 40-something technologists supposed to do? Conveniently
disappear into obscurity?"

No. You're supposed to invent things that change the world.

Age does not doom you to failure, anymore than youth makes people automatically succeed. It's just that, statistically and for the reasons outlined here, you will have a harder time of it than your 25 year old self would have had.

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9. calvin on June 17, 2007 12:47 PM writes...

"No. You're supposed to invent things that change the world."

Thank you Mr. Shirky!

As a person gets older they have the opportunity to ask more "should I" sorts of questions that when a person is younger just don't make sense. I suppose it's true that youth wants to change the world, and maturity wants to improve it. And perhaps the greater the drive the greater the success. Change certainly requires a big drive.

I've long thought that the real secret advantage of youth is ignorance, or naivete. Not knowing, allows invention from present circumstance.

But for the scope of this discussion, I wouldn't ignore the effects of "the valley" on the current situation. Or the allure of the narrative that underscores this youthful invention argument.

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10. calvin on June 17, 2007 12:51 PM writes...

"No. You're supposed to invent things that change the world."

Thank you Mr. Shirky!

As a person gets older they have the opportunity to ask more "should I" sorts of questions that when a person is younger just don't make sense. I suppose it's true that youth wants to change the world, and maturity wants to improve it. And perhaps the greater the drive the greater the success. Change certainly requires a big drive.

I've long thought that the real secret advantage of youth is ignorance, or naivete. Not knowing, allows invention from present circumstance. Which is a variation of your argument.

But for the scope of this discussion, I wouldn't ignore the effects of "the valley" on the current situation. Or the allure of the narrative "the valley" promulgates and that underlies this youthful invention argument.

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11. AUi on June 17, 2007 4:05 PM writes...

Probably more cruel than age, in the pecking order of life, is the bell curve of intelligence. So most innovation will come from less than 10% of the population, regardless of age, race, sex, etc.

Almost all of popular youth culture--that needs to be purchased at some point to keep up with peers and fads--is controlled by or benefits 30-50 y/o businesspeople.

There is very little in today's youth culture that wasn't standardized before 1980, and their current mainstream fads aren't any better. Before the Internet there was AOL and .alt BBS's--doing about 2/3's of what the WWW is now (chat, email, role playing, porn, special interest groups, email attachments, etc.)

Before that there was the Whole Earth Catalog, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, etc. which could be the equivalent of Boing Boing, Digg, Lifehacker, etc. for functionality. The main difference would be the speed of distributed knowledge, by fax & snail mail then, and less user input.

Many of the great creative people hit their stride in old age, in fields such as physics, art, cinema, medicine, and on & on...

The elite are the innovators at any age, and unfortunately for youth and their elders, most people are followers.

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12. Lynda Radosevich on June 18, 2007 3:22 PM writes...

Clay,

One curious element of this ongoing thread is how you and Fred tie entrepreneurship to social web apps. I wonder how many 23-year-olds are building startups around disease-fighting drugs or optical communications techniques or environmental technologies?

Fred's observations, as astute as they are, do not provide enough data to support sweeping generalizations about age and entrepreneurial trends.

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13. (a different) David on June 19, 2007 12:05 PM writes...

> David, if the question is experience, then the X/Y analysis is pretty accurate. Older people have more experience than younger people, no? When experience is valuable, age is valuable; when it isn't, then it isn't.

"Not valuable" != "handicap." (Even the "not valuable" part is lacking in proof.)

> And when experience is a liability, then age is a liability.

"Not valuable" != "liability."

> ...a higher percentage of world-changing businesses will be founded by young people than old people,

Probably true.

> and this is because they have a mental advantage in seeing whats possible without looking through the dark glass of the past, as we older people do.

Or, because older people have a much higher chance of having families, mortgages, kids to put through college, and parents to keep in nursing homes. How much easier is it for a single 22-year-old freshly-minted college graduate to start a new company, than for a 45-year-old man (or woman) married, with a mortgage, a couple of children in college, and a parent with Alzheimer's?

> This is not a thesis that is falsified by showing that one old person founded one great company, it is a thesis that can be falsified by showing that more world-changing tech businesses are founded by old people.

No, it's a thesis that can be falsified by showing that more world-changing tech businesses are founded, by "old people" in the *same situation* as the "young people." Or you could attempt the inverse, and prove this false: "Old people start fewer tech companies than young people because they're handicapped by experience."

> Good luck with gathering the evidence for that. You be sure to come back and let us know what you found.

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14. Martha Garvey on June 20, 2007 9:26 AM writes...

I would love, love, love to know where researchers into neuroplasticity come out on this discussion. Apparently we're all capable of growing new neurons throughout adulthood (yea!). And you grow new neurons by challenging your brain.

So I think this is good news for the world, yes?

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15. Michael Houst on June 20, 2007 10:22 AM writes...

Let me throw my 2 cheap coins worth in the fray.

Most people of any age haven't got a clue. It's not age specific. The problems with most people under the age of 30 is they don't even know they don't have a clue, and they certainly don't understand why they don't have one either.

The problem with teens and tweens isn't that they think they know everything, it's that they reject everything that they haven't experienced themselves. In the long run, this attitude and behavior is wasteful as hell. It's akin to using the natural selection of bacteria to find one able to survive in a specific hostile environment. You have trillions of failures until you have one stupendous success.

Similar results are obtained by young venture capitalists. The few outshine the losers, which gets touted about by everyone about child prodigies to the point they overlook the successes of the rest of the population as a whole.

Let me add one more peice on the other side of the arguement though. The Young have one natural advantage that older folks can emulate. Youngsters are already in the position of being wrong, so they have nothing to lose by trying something new. If it works, they win, if it doesn't work, they're at least at the same place they started. Older people generally have a fear of being wrong because it results in a lose of their current position. Those that have overcome that fear still make mistakes, but they make fewer mistakes due to their experience, and are still coming up with new innovations.

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16. Paul B. Hartzog on June 20, 2007 8:44 PM writes...

A point about the responsibility of critique.

Many people were comfortable with slavery.
Many people were comfortable with pollution.
Many people are comfortable with capitalism and the lack of global equity.

Those who grow up in an era in which they taken certain things for granted are not special. Sure, they are enabled to innovate in ways that previous-era occupants are not, but they are also limited in their thinking in ways that previous-era occupants are not.

The new conditions both enable AND constrain new thinking. The new era is different, as are its participants. It is the responsibility of those from other times to offer sound critiques on future directions.

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17. Mark Leighton Fisher on June 21, 2007 11:36 AM writes...

Social networking applications appeal to youth, because their free time is spent socializing with friends and family. Making this socializing easier (in time or space) therefore appeals to young people. Those of us who have have families, mortgages, etc. want applications for spending our time more effectively -- internet shopping and travel planning, for example -- as you are pressed for time once you start raising a family et.al. So younger people are likelier to become entrepreneurs of social network software sites, as they have more free time which they wish to spend wisely. Conversely, older people are likelier to develop software to help them use what time they have more effectively.

The other factor in entrepreneurship is how many resources it takes to start a business. Before a family comes along, your time and money are yours alone, so you can spend them as you choose without affecting others. One result of Open Source that I expect to see is more older people starting businesses, as Open Source can remove much of the cost barrier to starting a business, leaving only the free-time barrier. The question on the table is whether the free-time barrier or the cost barrier is the greater barrier to starting a business. I suspect that the cost barrier is greater, but I have no proof of this.

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18. Dan Brickley on June 22, 2007 3:15 AM writes...

I'm not so sure. Knowing that it didn't always used to be like this can be the flipside of realising that it doesn't always have to be like this. In technology, politics or life at large. A good part of this can be gotten from history books or talking to the aged, of course.

Permalink to Comment

19. meehawl on July 8, 2007 10:43 AM writes...

Kids make better copy and a standard template story that fits well with the business magazine and CNBC hype machine (ironic, isn't it, to be so reliant on these to build valuation hype)? How many times will we see a re-tread of the homoerotic "twin male uberkid" story coming out of the Valley? It was old when Woz and Jobs did it, then fast-forward with Yang/Filo Spencer/Kraus, Brin/Page and most recently Hurley/Chen (with Karim written out as an inconvenient third wheel disrupting the dyadic symmetry of the story). People have loves twin stories for millenia, and in the absence of actual twins, will settle for ersatz twins, the younger the better (but no too young, because that would convert the eroticism into ephebophilia).

Permalink to Comment

20. meehawl on July 8, 2007 10:46 AM writes...

Kids make better copy and a standard template story that fits well with the business magazine and CNBC hype machine (ironic, isn't it, to be so reliant on these to build valuation hype)? How many times will we see a re-tread of the homoerotic "twin male uberkid" story coming out of the Valley? It was old when Woz and Jobs did it, then fast-forward with Yang/Filo Spencer/Kraus, Brin/Page and most recently Hurley/Chen (with Karim written out as an inconvenient third wheel disrupting the dyadic symmetry of the story). People have loved twin stories for millennia, and in the absence of actual twins, will settle for ersatz twins, the younger the better (but no too young, because that would convert the eroticism into ephebophilia... and that doesn't go over so well as a story unless it's a young female pop singer).

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