It was Ethan Hawke, in the role of Troy Dyer in the inimitable paean to '90s slackerdom Reality Bites, who said, "I am not under any orders to make the world a better place."
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It was a very '90s thing to say. And Troy was a jerk. But that line, delivered with such casual-cool snark, kept echoing in the background of the very '10s New York Times Magazine piece that leads off this week's Searchlight. It's all about the "new guard" in Silicon Valley. The extremely smart, good-time guys and gals who are leading the appification charge. Eschewing work on that which gives those apps the ability to function -- networks, data storage -- for sexier pursuits like, well, making sexting apps. Infrastructure? As if!
But there's another, deeper, loss when smart friends let smart friends take that job with Snapchat. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it's a loss for humanity. As Yiren Lu, author of the Times story nicely couches it, we're looking at a twist on the old Ivy League schools' lament that their best and brightest go to Wall Street. In this appification nation, she ponders, "Why do these smart, quantitatively trained engineers, who could help cure cancer or fix Healthcare.gov, want to work for a sexting app?" What does it say when a collection of MIT students set about to explore the potential deeper meaning behind -- GIFs?
It's part and parcel of the customer-focused digital age. Experts say it's all about letting customers create their own experience, so it's no wonder that grandiose pitches for small-idea apps are where it's at. But in focusing so heavily on giving the people what they want right now, are we risking our future ability to deliver what they really need?
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There was an ever-so-faint glimmer of hope this week coming from, of all places, SXSW. At that Austin, Texas, bastion of all things new, flashy and ephemeral was a sign of an unlikely emerging trend -- the so-called maker movement. In this decidedly retro trend is a return to the basics, a focus on hardware, the physical tools that make technology tick. One example, a Lego-esque toy set that allows users to build their own electronics. It's anything but ephemeral.
And lest we think all the humanity has been drained from technological pursuits, there's hope there too. This week commercial satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe made it possible for people around the world to join in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Here's a slogan that's both catchy and enduring: Hope springs eternal.
- What's wrong with these (tech) kids today?
- On the Web's 25th birthday, inventor Tim Berners-Lee pushes for an online Bill of Rights, calling an unrestricted Web "vital to human development." And super-cute kitten videos are good for the soul, he added. (Not really.)
- Hoping that crowdsourcing can help, literally everyone is invited by a commercial satellite company to join in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
- Why you need Christopher Columbus and Mark Zuckerberg on your data analytics team.
- Amid the music from indie bands you've never heard of and pitches from startups you may never hear from again, that guy Edward Snowden dropped in (via satellite) at SXSW asking techies to use their expertise to protect users from mass government surveillance.
- Google Fiber: It ain't a cereal and it apparently ain't no joke.
Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.