Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Cautionary Reaction to the Gore Move

I am glad to see that the comments that have shown up on Truthdig in response to the news of the partnership between Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management company and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) have been mixed. This is an event that deserves reflection more than cheerleading, particularly since it is likely to sail us all preciously close to one of the themes of this blog, which is the hazardous consequences of what I have called "technocentric ignorance." Make no mistake about it, KPCB is a Silicon Valley venture capital organization. This has two consequences that we should not overlook:

  1. The more general is that venture capital organizations have only one objective, which is to make money from new ventures. Back when I had to worry about this game as part of my day job, the rule of thumb for evaluating success was the following: If, out of every ten new ventures that you support, after five years eight have failed, one is hanging on for dear life, and one is giving you a hundred-fold return on your investment, then you are managing your investments successfully. At that point you cash in on your success and look for the latest round of newcomers to repeat the process. So, whatever the evangelists may say, none of this is about saving the planet; as is always the case, it is all about the money, regardless of the impact on the environment. Venture funding is nothing more than another arena for business-as-usual capitalism.
  2. The more specific has to do with "Silicon Valley culture," best captured by the premise is that no problem is too great for technology to solve. Perhaps the best example of this culture in action can be found at Google (which happens to be one of the KPBC success stories), which has decided to address the health care crisis by turning its attention to "health information products." Since, like most technology companies, Google is basically that small boy with a hammer who sees everything as a nail, the Google venture into "health information" begins by reducing it to a search problem, since that is the kind of problem they know how to solve. Such thinking is not without value; but it overlooks the more troubling premise that the problems surrounding health care (as well as the environment) have extremely strong and complex social factors that are being willfully ignored in the interest of "delivering product." Thus, when it comes to determining which venture investments are likely to give the best returns, it is unlikely that KPBC has any way to account for such social factors in their decision making.

The bottom line is that the very premise behind venture funding constitutes a conflict of interest with the mission of stemming the environmental crisis. The problems that our environment now faces are almost entirely products of, as I put it, business-as-usual capitalism; so Gore's move is likely to have the unfortunate consequence of delegating some of the best foxes in the business to guard a henhouse with precious few hens left in it. My guess is that we shall see some lip service paid to those social factors but that it will come in support of a new generation of "social software" ventures that (if I am forgiven an extreme metaphor) floated out in the piss resulting from drinking too much Web 2.0 Kool-Aid. (As supporting evidence I would note that Google's Marissa Meyer made that announcement about "health information products" at last month's Web 2.0 Summit.) To draw upon the pun invoked by Truthdig commenter jatihoon, there is nothing "NOBLE" about an office on Sand Hill Road; and my only hope is that it will not take Gore long to recognize this fundamental precept.

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