Innovation

Tech's Manifest Destiny

abergseyeview manifest destiny

In the 19th century, American pioneers expanded across the reaches of the American continent. The driving force behind this unstoppable conquest was the belief in America’s Manifest Destiny. Today, as we witness a new technological Manifest Destiny, we must be careful not to repeat the sins of the past.

The Call of Destiny

Manifest Destiny was the belief that America’s unique virtue not only allowed, but obligated, its citizens to expand and tame the American continent. It was followed with an almost zealous fervor by pioneers and settlers pushing the bounds of the United States’ frontier ever further. Manifest Destiny, perhaps more than any other cultural belief, has created the country we know today. It brought immeasurable wealth, resources, and power to what eventually would become the world’s preeminent superpower. This treasure trove of riches was not won without sacrifice. The secondary effects of Manifest Destiny were the displacement of native peoples, the extinction or endangerment of many natural species, and the fundamental altering of America’s environmental landscape. It’s hard to argue that the benefits of Manifest Destiny, at least from America’s perspective, outweighed the cost, but we are fooling ourselves if we ignore that there was a cost. I will leave the debate of whether Manifest Destiny on a whole was positive or negative to history’s scholars, but what is undeniable is that the phenomenon was more complex and nuanced in its ramifications than anyone considered at the time. Manifest Destiny’s effects, good and ill, have reverberated through time and are still felt today. The modern-day Manifest Destiny will have an equally far reach, but will it be for our benefit or our detriment?

Technology’s Manifest Destiny

The modern equivalent of America’s Manifest Destiny is the seemingly unassailable march forward of technology and innovation. Innovation grows at an exponential scale as new discoveries and technologies open up the door for additional breakthroughs. It has become a cliche critique, but I do think there is truth in the idea that we spend so much time asking if something can be done, that we rarely take the time to ask whether it should be done. As we reach new technological frontiers in mobility, automation, and artificial intelligence, we need to start grappling with the very real questions of not only what should be done, but how should it be done.

Don’t mistake me. I am not out to get technology or break up big tech or regulate innovation away. If anything I am the opposite. I genuinely believe that technology and innovation is the driving force behind a tide that raises all boats. I believe that we live in the single greatest period of time in human history and that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.

I write this post not because I distrust technology, but because I believe in it so strongly. Just as the pioneers of 200 years ago did, I have at times found myself a zealot blindly preaching the benefits of the forward progress of technology with little heed towards its potential side effects. This entrenched bias and lack of nuanced view scares me when I see it in myself and it scares me when I see it at large in our community. I love disruption as much as the next guy, but we shouldn’t worship at its altar. Disruption hasn’t always had the positive connotations that it enjoys today (just ask my grade school teachers…). We mustn’t give in to the temptation to simply assume that what we do is “good” and what others do is “bad”. We can’t kid ourselves that just because technology has created unprecedented prosperity that, left to its own devices, it is destined to continue to do so.

We are better than that.

Innovation is a force and just like any other, it is indifferent in its application. The fire does not hate the wood it burns.

Responsibility ultimately lies with those who wield it.

Us.

The lack of acknowledging that responsibility is one of the things that scares me most in the world of technology today. There seem to be two camps. On one hand, there are people who believe that tech can do no wrong. That it is not just ultimately a force for good, but unequivocally so. On the other hand, there are those who believe that we are powerless to change the course of innovation for better or worse. That innovation is an unstoppable tide that we must be content to merely keep our heads above water as we are swept away.

I reject both of those arguments.

We should not fall into the same trap that the pioneers of yore did by simply believing that because we can do something that it is good. I will be the first to tell you that I believe that technological progress is on its net, overwhelmingly positive, but to outright ignore its downfalls is a path to disaster.

We are not bystanders who lack sovereignty over our circumstances either. We are creators that can exert their will upon their creation. To argue otherwise is an attempt to dissociate responsibility.

Now look, I don’t have the answers.

But I do know that we need to continue the discourse. We need to have the tough conversations about not just what can be done, but what should be done.

We as a community cannot hide behind platitudes of technology’s greatness. We need to be honest with ourself about innovation’s heights and depths. About its greatness and its shortcomings. Its light and its darkness.

Because if we don’t.

Who will?


The Globalization of Venture Capital: Is United States Innovation Falling Behind?

Photo by  NASA  on  Unsplash

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

There was a story doing the rounds this week about a new Center for American Entrepreneurship study about the globalization of Venture Capital. CAE’s study showed that the United States’ share of global venture capital investment had fallen 20% in the last five years and 50% in the last 25 years. These statistics were framed with alarming rhetoric from both the tech media and the Center for American Entrepreneurship.

VentureBeat stated that this report should give Americans “cause for concern.”

Richard Florida, one of the leaders of the study, stated that “[he] thinks for the first time, the U.S. is truly in trouble.”

Much of the discussion around this report has represented similarly disheartening views of the outlook for innovation in the United States. Media sites and commentators have worried over America’s loss of “edge,” and forewarned of dark days ahead.

My response:

Are we really so insecure that our place in the global order is threatened by the United States only receiving HALF of the globe’s capital invested into innovation?

The United States represents approximately 4% of the world’s population. By any objective viewpoint we are significantly punching above our weight to receive over 12x our share of the world’s risk capital.

But Erik, what about the relative decrease in our portion of venture capital investments? Shouldn’t we be worried about investment into our country decreasing by 20% in 5 years?

Short answer: No.

Long Answer: This is why Intro to Statistics is required coursework. Venture capital investing into the United States has not decreased by 20%, the share of global venture capital received by US-based companies has decreased by 20%. The difference is incredibly important.

Via NVCA. As of June 30, 2018.

Via NVCA. As of June 30, 2018.

2018 is, in fact, poised to be the largest year for venture capital investment into US startups since the Dotcom crash. At the halfway point of 2018, about 3/4 of 2017’s total investment value has been deployed. This means that we are on pace for a potentially record breaking year (for discussion of whether this should even be something to be celebrated or not, check out last week’s post.) Yes, our piece of the overall venture capital pie is shrinking, but the overall size of the pie is magnitudes greater than it used to be. That is what matters most. Innovation is not a zero sum game, our ability to innovate is not hampered by China’s or India’s. In fact, it is the reverse. Increasing levels of global innovation create network effects which the United States can take advantage of to propel us even further.

It is short sighted and, frankly, close-minded to believe that the United States has some sort of divine right to be the innovation capital of the world. Innovation, by its very nature, is meritocratic. The United States’ shrinking share of venture capital dollars should be met with fanfare, not rumors of our impending demise. The rest of the world is catching up, and that can only be a good thing. More innovation means more impactful technologies that can improve people’s lives for the better. Where that innovation occurs is far less important than the fact that it is occurring, and if we are being honest with ourselves, there are many parts of the world that need ground-breaking innovation a lot more than the United States needs a new social media app.

We are not facing an innovation crisis in the United States. We are the pioneer of modern technological innovation and the rest of the world is starting to build up their own capabilities on the back of 80 years of the United States writing the playbook.

This is a good thing.

For everyone.

To suggest otherwise is both alarmist and misguided.


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