Technology start-up stories – why care?



I’m not that interested in the nuts and bolts of technology. I am, however, really interested in people and their stories, and that includes the stories of the people behind the technology. To this end, I have been dipping into books like Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton, The Internet Is Not The Answer by Andrew Keen, and last night took the opportunity to watch a 90 minute Netflix documentary called Print The Legend (a film that explores the recent developments in 3D printing). 

The link between the texts is the obvious one of exploring the underbelly of Silicon Valley, with all the drama, personality clashes, struggles for power, and insane amounts of money that are made and lost in the new tech world. In The Internet Is Not The Answer, Keen places significant emphasis on the wealth held by the “1%”, describing in detail the fortunes of the more obvious players like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, but also of the people behind the scenes, like Tom Perkins, cofounder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capital firm and a man who owns a $ 130 million yacht called the Maltese Falcon. The book presents the argument that the vision that the Internet is a force for democratisation and growing equality, a place where the playing field is flat, is misguided. He describes the dominance of “the winner takes all” mentality and points out the rapidly growing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, in his opinion the most negative aspect of the way that the Internet and its applications have evolved. Keen calls for governments to regulate the big players, and looks to legislation as the solution to the increasing dominance of a few global companies. I think the education system also has a role to play, and this thinking is reinforced by the stories of Makerbot and Formlabs, explored in the documentary Print The Legend.
The story of the development of 3D printers for domestic use is, just like the story of Twitter, one of dreams and power struggles. The documentary Print The Legend follows the development of two start-ups, Makerbot and Formlabs, from their early days to the present. The most interesting strand to follow is the story of the cofounder of Makerbot, Bre Pettis, mostly because it has all the drama of a Shakespearean tragedy. Pettis is captured on camera in the early days of Makerbot saying that the most important aspect of the way that the company will run is that the information will be open source (freely available to anyone). As the start-up grows, and investment climbs, we watch as Pettis changes into a man who comes to understand that this is “serious” now, and that money can be made, and that, after all, open source is not the way forward, but rather proprietary software is. It is fascinating to see how he shifts, eventually leading to him firing a number of the original members, and merging Makerbot with the industrial 3D printing leader Stratasys, for a value of $ 403 million. The difference between the man we first meet, a passionate leader with a clear vision based on a principle of community first, to the man who has staked his claim as the CEO of Makerbot, a profit-making company that has revenue stream as its prime interest (and that has lost the support of the original maker community), is striking. The human story here stands out more than the story of the technology, and this is where I see a link with education.

As I read Keen’s book The Internet Is Not The Answer, the fact that stood out, that I think I knew but had to be reminded of, is that the first website was put online in 1989. 1989! I was just about to finish high school. I remember 1989. I have conscious memories of that time and that was when it all just started! Thinking about what has happened in the last 25 years, it becomes clear that teachers, no matter how hard they try, cannot be at the cutting edge of technology. I can explore, I can read, I can connect with others – I must make an effort, but I feel like the best I can do is stay curious and accept that I will not be an expert, simply because of the speed of change. But, and here is the crux of this discussion, the technological expertise is not what stands out in these technology start-up stories – it is the people and the choices they made. The world changes at a crazy pace, and the backdrop to these stories is continually shifting, but at the heart of all of this is people making decisions, based on what they perceive to be right and wrong. So – somewhere along the line Amazon’s Jeff Bezos decided that the right thing to do was to dominate the market in the most aggressive way possible, running his company on minimal profit margins to drive down prices, giving the consumer what he wants and decimating competition. Makerbot’s Bre Pettis decided that the right thing to do was to sacrifice his vision of an open source maker community in order to be part of the corporate Bay elite. These are decisions that seem driven by a vision that accepts mass casualties on the way to personal success. This vision is wrong and this is where education has a fundamental role to play. Our connections with others, an understanding of the impact of the choices we make on others, an understanding of what is needed for the good of others – these are skills that can and should be overtly explored in classrooms. Educators have a significant role to play in supporting students to calibrate their moral compasses. Technology is not the issue, it is what people do with it that matters. Yes, educators must make an effort to keep up to date with edtech, but let’s not focus only on that. Imagine that instead of the countless edtech discussions and conferences, we had more interaction about how to best encourage our students to be “good people”. We need to stop every now and then and question what our energy is being spent on.

The ability to empathise, to care for the community, to think beyond “what am I going to get out of this” – this is what I value in people, and engendering this in others is something I can work on over a period of time because I know it will always be relevant. We need our students to be digitally literate, that is undeniable, but we also need them to be good people, and that will never change.

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