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« Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad: A Response to Gorman | Main

June 16, 2007

The Future Belongs to Those Who Take The Present For Granted: A return to the 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. Freebase needs 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 they list in the database. 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 alignment with 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.

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