In the movie “Ruby Sparks,” a novelist played by Paul Dano falls in love with a character he’s written, whom he believes is the ideal woman. Eventually, she comes to life and they have a relationship. But despite the fact that he created her based on his image of the perfect girl, and can even alter her personality through his writing, he finds dating the real life Ruby to be much more complicated than he imagined.
The underlying message of the movie is that the novelist in the film created a shallow facsimile of a woman, because he didn’t understand them enough to write one who is complete and complex.
It occurred to me that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs view the world with the same overly simplistic short sightedness with which the novelist viewed women. Just as Dano’s character figured he could write a cute, fun loving girl and that represented perfection, too many tech entrepreneurs think they can create utopia with apps and crowdsourcing. This oversimplified worldview is why Valley entrepreneurs who haven’t done much more than mail something in a box or figured out another way to share pictures, think they can come up with easy solutions for everything. Creating a perfect world is far trickier than most of them think.
To give you an idea of how little of the world Internet entrepreneurs create, consider this. I am writing this while sitting on a couch, with my feet on a table, and typing on a computer. You are reading this post on some kind of physical device, probably sitting in a chair, in a place that you likely drove to in a car. If you walked, you did so over concrete sidewalks through a city filled with buildings. What does any of this have to do with the Internet? Nothing, and that’s my point. The world is still made of physical assets and aside from serving an IT function, the internet doesn’t produce any of it. For entrepreneurs who work almost exclusively in a virtual space to think they have the answers to everything is the epitome of hubris.
In addition to the oversimplified views often expressed by the tech industry, Internet entrepreneurs rarely consider the ramifications or even the possibility of unintended consequences. Problems are viewed as “one and done” fixes and anything that gets broken in the process is chalked up to necessary collateral damage. But this isn’t really solving problems as much as trading one problem for another. Take for example online shopping. Ecommerce is great. It solves lots of problems. But its proponents conveniently ignore the fact that it has also put thousands of brick and mortar employees out of work. If you had to look at the whole picture, not just the Silicon Valley side of it, it’s no guarantee that online shopping is a net positive.
The film provides a great example of this when the novelist changes Ruby’s personality through his writing but still can’t “fix” her as his changes result in different issues. Because he still sees her in simplistic terms, his fixes don’t address the holistic situation. Unlike the Valley, Dano’s character can’t ignore the unintended consequences of his solutions and he ultimately discovers that, despite having godlike powers over his creation, he is unable to create the perfect woman. His ideas of perfection prove to be elementary and the real person ultimately turns out to be far more complicated.
If you’re only trying to make a few bucks, score an exit, or create a solution to a singular problem and you harbor no delusions about possessing the superiority to fix everything, please understand this is not directed at you. But for those in the tech industry who feel they’re qualified to play armchair quarterback and prescribe what’s best for our society and our future, you would be well served to develop a greater understanding of complexity and unintended consequences.
Just as the novelist was unable to create the perfect woman because his understanding of women was shallow and incomplete, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who reduce the world to simple solutions have little hope of solving the complex problems that plague our society as a whole.