Virtual Idealists

Redfin & Our CEO

Virtual Idealists

Steve Jobs is the Internet generation’s Robert Kennedy. Close your eyes, and the Apple CEO even sounds like a Kennedy: follow your passion, the charismatic icon tells our youth; change the world. Except Jobs is selling gadgets, not civil rights.

No one seems to have noticed. Now, oil companies gush over the environment. Insurance ads quote Thoreau. Retailers fight HIV. And it all started in Silicon Valley.
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I worked there from 1995 – 2005, and saw Silicon Valley take in the world’s best and brightest. Unlike other fortune-seekers, many of us were idealists, the kind of people who in a different time might have become teachers, doctors and social workers. In 1997, just after Netscape’s public offering inaugurated the Internet era, medical school applications declined precipitously for six straight years. Over that same period, the U.S. faced the worst teacher shortage in its history. The idealists had become virtual idealists.

It’s hard afterwards to come back to genuine ideals. Two years ago, my twin brother left a law firm protecting the Internet bubble’s investment bankers, for a government job protecting the environment. Now he complains you can’t turn the lights on in his office over the weekend without calling a special number. Before that, he worked for a non-profit that represented asylum seekers, who often showed up late for meetings. “No one ever did that when I cost $390 an hour,” he said.

In a year away from high-tech, I volunteered at inner-city schools and felt the same way: my time was lightly valued because I was giving it away, and many of the tutors seemed unmotivated compared to my old colleagues.

So now I’m back in Internet software, mostly because I missed the sense of purpose and importance that being around other driven people gave me. I believe in what we’re doing. But since we’re also out to turn a profit, some have ventured to call this belief disingenuous.

And it may seem so, but not to anyone in high technology, which has so thoroughly mixed virtue with commerce that you can hardly tell the two apart. Apple launched the Mac with an ad showing a woman heaving a hammer at a televised image of Big Brother. Google is famous for its promise to not be evil, and eBay’s latest slogan is “people are good.”

What each of these companies fears most is the loss of their original idealistic zeal: for CEO Jeff Bezos, it is still “day one” at Amazon; topping 10,000 employees, Google insists that it has “a small-company feel.” With near-monopolies in online bookselling, music, search and auctions, these companies imagine themselves as Davids, not Goliaths.

The touchstone of this idealism is the Internet itself, which for many of us has the conceptual magnitude of a new America, with new possibilities of community (MySpace), self-expression (YouTube), freedom (Second Life), love (Match.com), and authenticity (blogs). We forget about the porn, the spam, the get-rich-quick schemes. Nothing could be more American than dressing up an historic money-grab into a City on the Hill.

And every entrepreneur is straining to be John Winthrop. The most coveted role in Silicon Valley is that of the visionary, the pied piper who leads the poets and the dreamers on a mission to build a better gizmo. These entrepreneurs are the kind of free spirits who could have started a movement.

Together, we’ve made our corner of capitalism a bit better: many of the rewards go to those who actually do the work, the engineers; the work itself is done in small groups, so we have a meaningful connection to what we make; our product is the purest form of creativity, built from ones and zeros rather than coal and trees; and the result is often useful and delightful to other people — occasionally it even changes the world.

It can, more rarely than we would like, also make us rich. It’s considered a bit grubby to make things that people will pay for, even when — as was the case with Google, Yahoo!, eBay (and yes, Redfin) – we make it before having any idea how people will pay. But it isn’t hard to choose between the grubbiness of making something (even if it’s just a website) and what my brother does at his non-profit job, which is essentially trying to stop people from making something. Making something might be the most basic and fulfilling compulsion humans have.

And so that’s why, for my generation, Apple is our Woodstock. Google is our Chicago Democratic Convention. The class of 1967 would not have campaigned so vociferously against Vietnam if they could have imagined themselves starting Google. And the class of 2007 might be marching against Darfur now if it could think of anything but starting another Google.

We’re still idealistic, but about e-mail spam, online privacy and net neutrality, not war, or poverty, or racism. The world around us is falling apart and we can hardly look up from our computer screens, where the Internet becomes more beautiful every day.
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