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The Future that Never Comes

The constant expansion and destructive acquisition of small innovative companies maintains the illusion that the latest digital horse is something special.
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Originally published at Sultan Knish.

The strange thing about America’s dot com titans is how short their lifecycles are. The development of the internet has been dominated by a handful of companies that changed the paradigm and were then run over by a new paradigm in under a decade.

The Netscape CEO was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1996 sitting on a golden throne. Today an entire generation of internet users has grown up without ever having bought his web browser. They don’t even think of a web browser as something you buy.

Netscape directed traffic to Yahoo, without realizing that having a site that millions of people visited was a better way of making money than selling a piece of software that let you browse those sites. Yahoo’s portal was powered by Google because it thought that offering people services was a better way to make money than something as grubby as a search engine.

Google used search to become an ad empire and began piling on more services, Yahoo style, while not paying much attention to the growth of social media. And today, Facebook is Google’s biggest real competitor on the internet. Until some upstart company, maybe Twitter, figures out how to eat Google’s lunch. And then someone eats their lunch.

IBM may have been mocked for its stodgy ways, but it stayed relevant far longer than the companies of the dot com waves that break upon the silicon shore and then vanish into obscurity. Yesterday’s genius on his golden throne who represents the wave of the new is writing his memoirs in a few years while trying to explain what went wrong and trying to figure out how he can get it all back.

The public is treated to a parade of computer geniuses who will deliver the future without realizing that all they’re seeing is another Alpha techie who doesn’t understand the future, but is successfully monetizing some service or piece of software that has suddenly become popular. If he does it well enough, he can build an entire ring of failed businesses around that single golden egg, the way that Microsoft has with its operating system licenses, Google with its search ad sales or Facebook with the sheer number of users in its social graph while pretending to be an innovator and change agent.

The constant expansion and destructive acquisition of small innovative companies maintains the illusion that the latest digital horse is something special. It’s not. The unglamorous truth is that Google makes its money selling ad space to insurance companies and Microsoft makes its money releasing incremental updates to its flawed operating system that it alternately sabotages and then repairs. If you’re annoyed by Windows 8, don’t worry. Windows 9 will “fix” the problem. It’s part of the idiotic business plan by a company that exploited a niche in IBM to become a much lamer IBM.

The “genius” factor is the sizzle that convinces investors to put their money into companies that have one core product whose profitability depends on the internet remaining the same ten years from now. It’s a furious buzz of activity that makes investors overlook the hard numbers. Take Amazon, which sells physical objects for money, and yet has been described as a shareholder subsidized charity because it funnels all its profits into getting bigger and bigger without actually turning a profit.

The absurd economics of the thing have made it so that not having a business plan is proof of sincerity. Any MBA can put together a business plan, but it takes a real genius to waltz into Wall Street wearing a hoodie and flipflops accompanied by a few celebrity pals with a plan to become the biggest companies that does everything ever… at which point it might turn a profit.

All this silliness has distorted our sense of how business is supposed to work and how things actually get done. Every CEO is supposed to be brilliant, to make irrational snap decisions that his peers will think make no sense and to parachute out of the company just ahead of the next trainwreck. And now it’s also how our government runs.

Obama’s public image is tethered to some illusion of genius entirely divorced from real world results. If he accidentally sat on the red button and ended the world in a blaze of nuclear fire, his horribly scarred mutant biographers would still explain in detail why he was much too smart to be president. And they’re probably right. Dot coms are likewise full of CEOs who are too smart to run companies, but enjoy solving abstract puzzles, buying other companies, waterskiing in Samurai costumes and giving interviews full of buzzwords to business magazines. Another word for them is idiots.

Applied intelligence is far more useful than abstract intelligence. It’s the difference between an eight foot basketball player who never bothers to learn the game and the six footer who spends every waking hour practicing and strategizing. The former has a genetic gift combined with some good nurturing and no useful skills beyond that. The latter has cultivated and applied his talents to the task.

Work isn’t glamorous. Not even the kind of work that most people think is glamorous. Being a movie star is about walking along a taped line and reciting the same lines again and again. Running a company is about knowing how the sausage gets made and seeing that it gets made on time. And being president is about doing both of those things a whole lot.

If Obama were a sports star, he wouldn’t be a basketball player, to the disappointment of so many white liberals. He would be a wrestler. You could easily see him playing a character, running around the ring, winning over the crowd, feeding off the drama and then staying around for a rigged match; the only kind he could win. It’s the easy glamorous stuff that he likes. Not the hard work.

And it’s why the dot com idea that you can have genius without hard work is so seductive to him. What he doesn’t understand is that the guy sitting opposite him at some Silicon Valley event isn’t building his company. He’s a boy who had one good idea, worked hard to implement it and is now in charge of being a “genius” and having a vision for the company. Meanwhile a thousand like him sit around doing the actual hard work of maintaining his core business and wasting time trying to implement all his new visions while working on their own big idea that will eat his for lunch.

Obama kept comparing Healthcare.gov to dot com companies because he assumed that building it would be some childishly simple act of genius. And he had every reason to think it would be easy. For the lifecycle of a mediocre internet company, he has lived a charmed life in which he only has to snap his fingers to get things done. There’s an extensive infrastructure of websites built around him that transcribe his speeches and inserts references to him into the biographies of American presidents.

But Healthcare.gov was actually supposed to a bunch of things, most of them more complicated than just delivering another dose of Obamaganda do the masses. And it had to be done, not by engineers waiting around for their stock options to (hopefully) make them millionaires, but by government contractors who spend all their money on lobbyists, not on talent, because that’s where their payday comes from. If you have to choose between working for CGI or the next Facebook, why would you choose to spend your days poring over charts from some clueless government idiot at CMS?

Now Obama has run into the end of his own political lifecycle. The billionaires who invested in him, no longer need him. The Democratic Party needs to convince voters that Hillary will fix his messes. And he stupidly made the mistake of actually trying to implement one of his ideas in a way that will directly affect people. Obama is no longer Google. Now he’s been reduced to being a Yahoo.

If you’re pretending to be a genius, the one thing you can’t do is screw up. You can smash all the plates while screaming obscenities. You can deliver tedious lectures on 18th century writers that no one but you has ever heard of. You can loudly declare that Einstein was wrong. And you can waste billions buying incompatible companies in pursuit of some vague vision about the future. Until the whole thing fails and the investors realize you’re not a genius and start demanding you bring in a professional CEO to secure the value of the company, even as they start thinking about carving it up.

Obama’s real crime was to make it obvious that he isn’t a genius. Just a guy in flipflops and a hoodie. Not an eccentric genius who wears a hoodie and flipflops because he’s an original thinker, but a guy who wears them because kids half his age wear them and he’s too lazy and deluded to grow up.

Investors will give their CEO geniuses a lot of rope as long as they think there’s a trillion dollars on the other end. They will engage in complex rationalizations to explain why they’re throwing money at a guy whose ideas never seem to pan out and whose one big idea is approaching its sell-by date. And then the moment comes, a perspective shift hits and the genius is the guy who burned through billions of their dollars and is still promising them Pi in the sky while the future has moved on.

Obama is no longer the future. He can’t be. Not on his second term. The smart money is no longer on books explaining why he succeeds, but books explaining what went wrong. The old genius has to make way for the next genius who will make the same exact mistakes, but offer a little more variety.

The game could have gone on a little longer, if only Obama hadn’t made the mistake of actually assuming that he could deliver, if he hadn’t been so taken by the applause of the crowd and the outcome of the rigged matches, that he actually tried to wrestle one of the slabs of muscle for real.

Modern genius is an intangible thing. It isn’t the brilliant poem or the moving sonata. It’s the idea of genius. The distilled abstraction of change. The shiny flash of the magician’s powder. A change in appearance that startles and excites. Vague promises of an amazing future soon to come. That is true of our politics and our dot com economics.

The future arrived some time ago. We are living now in the post-future of the present where everything is momentarily amazing, but nothing endures, where last week’s blockbuster is already forgotten and last year’s genius is sheepishly fondling his framed magazine covers and the hit songs never go away, until they’re gone, and then they’re gone for good.

Obama is an empty construct of what the future was supposed to be; young charismatic, post-racial, post-partisan and solution-oriented. Now he’s already becoming old and outdated, a future that was, a future that might have been, a poster on an aging Occupier’s wall, a fading magazine cover, another progressive dead end for a movement always dreaming of a tomorrow that never comes.

About the Author: Daniel Greenfield is an Israeli born blogger and columnist, and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His work covers American, European and Israeli politics as well as the War on Terror. His writing can be found at http://sultanknish.blogspot.com/. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press.


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