Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bing Gordon's Rationales

I find it a little bit ironic that Caroline McCarthy’s column for CNET News, The Social, should run an interview with Bing Gordon the day after I put up a post of my own entitled “Beyond Rationality.”  Gordon is certainly one of those Silicon Valley players who can only be viewed through lenses of rationale, rather than rationality (the general point I was trying to make yesterday).  However, it is unclear that one can get a handle on his rationale without exercising a considerable amount of rationality.

I first heard Gordon opine about five years ago.  I was attending a convention that had been organized (and probably financed) by Comcast, primarily with the objective of informing attendees about the rising tide of convergence.  At the time Gordon was an executive at Electronic Arts and sat on a panel to which he contributed his thoughts on the future of gaming in a “converged” digital world.  This included a future in which people would be playing his games on mobile devices, relying on their telephone service providers to give them the opportunity to “reach out and kill someone.”  (How could I forget those words?)

Gordon is now a partner with the venture capital firm of Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers, leading me to wonder whether his gift for provocative assertion may provide a means for filtering out would-be entrepreneurs who have “the right stuff.”  This is not necessarily a bad idea.  Entrepreneurial judgment is not necessarily the same as creative thinking, any more than, as Isaiah Berlin demonstrated, political judgment is not necessarily the same as dispassionate objective reasoning.  Nevertheless, according to McCarthy, Gordon is in charge of his firm’s new social-media investment funds;  so, beyond any heuristics he may have for filtering down the pool of candidates, just what do we know about his perception of the social world that may be impacted (and may impact) any commitment of investment funding?

One clue comes from the following excerpt from McCarthy’s column:

Many arguments in favor of limits to online social networking invoke Dunbar's number, the figure proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar that suggests that the number of real human relationships that a given individual can have is limited to about 150. That's something that could spell less than sunny forecasts for a industry in which social connections need to keep escalating in order for profits to keep expanding in turn.

Bing Gordon's take is that those limits are going away in the first place.

"Dunbar's number is changing because of the efficiency of social networks. We're going to be able to keep 500 relationships warmed up instead of 120," Gordon said. "Social networks improve social capital so efficiently that more people are doing it. People who start using social networks don't stop. There are just too many advantages. You meet significant others, you get a job, you find out what's going on, you save time."

The implication seems to be that the most promising inventions in social software will be those that most efficiently “improve social capital,” which sounds dangerously like an attempt to reduce the processes of socialization to those of assembly line manufacturing.  In other words, he is taking the premise of those researchers at IBM Almaden Services Research who tried to reduce service to a science and is trying to extend it from the social nature of service provision to all forms of socialization.  Needless to say, I find this premise to be grossly inconsistent with “our knowledge of the social world;”  and these days I would turn to social theorist Alfred Schutz for the right kind of cudgel to apply to Gordon’s head.

However, beyond the abstract properties of the social world that occupy academics (past and present) like Schutz, there is the question of our contemporary social world and the economic crisis that is consuming it.  Is venture capitalism part of the solution to our current problems, as Barack Obama and many others would have us believe;  or is it part of the problem?  Consider this Gordon quote from McCarthy’s column:

I think if you start a company, and you have a vision, and you change the vision, just do it with honor.  I was talking to one guy who's like, 27 years old, and he started a company, and I said, “Dude, if this thing works you could make 10 million bucks in a year. After that it's going to be a boring company. But go do it real fast, because in your 20s to have $5 or $10 million in your pocket changes your whole life. This is not a potential Internet treasure, this is a life foundation. Run like hell.[“]  And that's what he did--I think it's just important for every person to understand their goals.

Quite honestly, I do not know what to make of this.  Is it honorable to flip your entrepreneurial efforts for $10 million in pocket as long as you are clear that this is your goal?  Does it matter that every economic system is as much about how individuals interact as it is about how each individual pursues his/her goals?  If everyone followed Gordon’s advice, would that hasten our steps toward economic recovery?  Would it even lead to steps taken in a productive direction?

For the life of me, I still cannot figure out if Gordon actually means any of the things he says.  With my own background in social theory, I have no trouble trying to interpret his declarations as Goffman-like “moves;”  but that still leaves me puzzled as to whether or not he knows (or cares) where those moves are taking him (or those conversing with him).  I did once have a boss who believed in “rock tumbler” research management:  Bring together all the best minds you can, let them keep bumping into each other, and eventually each will emerge as a polished gem.  Perhaps Gordon sees himself as the agent that tumbles the rocks of both would-be entrepreneurs and would-be investors.  Good rock-tumbling requires considerable patience, however, leaving me to wonder whether or not Kleiner Perkins sees such a strategy as effective for the short-term gains that make for their bread and butter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Every time I hear some official or pundit hammering away at the dogma of not just growth, but increasing growth, and what sorts of government actions can be used to promote increasing growth, I'm reminded of the argument that runs through Friedrich Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" to the effect that markets only work when they're unpredictable, and that when governments undertake to coerce actions out of citizens designed to accomplish specific macroeconomic goals, that leads to fascism very quickly. The dogma of growth may work differently in the arena of articulated social networks -- perhaps functioning more as a means of indoctrination (or to produce a stimulus so uniformly constant that it cannot quite be noticed as a distinct phenomena (and therefore cannot be adequately interrogated)) -- but is no less disconcerting. A goal of making an Internet company to flip for $10 million can hardly be described as modest, but what I find more troubling than the apparent practicality of such advice is that there are enough people out there so easily manipulated as to make such a goal even seem reasonable.