A recent New Yorker profile of young Internet entrepreneur Emerson Spartz highlights what is wrong with today’s click-obsessed business culture: it’s all about the money.
Spartz is typical of today’s web-based tycoons. He started out as a twelve-year-old wunderkind Web page designer who created MuggleNet, a site that specialized in the best Harry Potter links.
Fifteen years later he and his wife Gaby own Spartz, Inc. whose site features the motto “We’re turning virality into a science.” It’s the corporate home of a number of Web sites, the most popular of which is dose.com, a photo and video aggregation site.
Now there’s nothing wrong ‘per se’ with being an aggregator. In fact, in Spartz’s case, it has generated millions of dollars of advertising revenue from those hooked on cat videos and top ten lists.
One could argue that there has always been a market for time-wasting amusements. A hundred years ago, the average office slave was probably sneaking some time with the latest gossip magazine or crossword puzzle. Now he or she resorts to on-line games and viral videos.
What is disturbing is that Mr. Spartz is the poster boy for a bigger problem: misappropriation of expertise. Two generations ago, educated young people endowed with special talents usually went into fields that, while generally lucrative, were often also very useful to society.
Today we are faced with a different world. Instead of building a better mousetrap or at least a stronger bridge, Spartz and his colleagues are obsessed with and championed for coming up with a cleverer headline to make you click on that silly new baby video.
If this trend was simply a question of losing the useful services of a few thousand young people who end up creating or distributing Internet memes, it might not be so bad. After all, we’ve always been willing to tolerate a small occupational drop off for silly amusements such as those who years ago created the yo-yo, the Hula-Hoop and the like.
But it’s no longer a question of foregoing the brains of a relatively small number of Internet virologists. The trend now encompasses all manner of intelligent, highly-skilled student coming out of university and applying his or her talents not for good but simply for gain.
We’ve already suffered greatly at the hands of the thousands of billionaire wannabes who almost brought our world economic system to its knees less than ten years ago. These were largely folks diverted from useful work in engineering and the sciences to ply their skills marketing worthless investment products with no other purpose than to make money.
Perhaps the most egregious diversion of talent has occurred in the finance industry. In its never-ending quest for sophisticated and complex investment vehicles, that industry has recruited those with Ph.D.s in engineering and theoretical physics.
It seems these folks are the perfect candidates to apply high level mathematics to the task of creating incomprehensible financial derivatives that help imperil the world economy. Who better than a nuclear physicist to create fissionable havoc in the marketplace?
The problem is, of course, that we the public have helped finance the educations of these folks to the tune of billions of dollars with the expectation that their knowledge would be put to good use. Little did we know that our tax dollars would help create a cadre of “quants” whose aim in life would instead be to pick our investment pocket.
It seems that the so-called modern economy has more to do with creating false value than creating useful goods and services. Much of our educational spending is now devoted to teaching young people the skills needed to fleece others whether through dangerous investment vehicles or by deceiving us with fancy clickbait.
Where once we took pride in turning out engineers, architects, doctors, accountants and lawyers who built bridges, buildings and companies and helped better and even save lives, now we venerate those whose single pursuit is great wealth. It’s hard to see what useful purpose Wall Street quants and click-driven Web virologists serve in our society except to further the notion that all that matters is money.
Perhaps it’s time we imposed a few requirements on students who graduate from publicly-funded universities, namely that they apply their newfound knowledge for the good of society and not its destruction. After all, in the end, it’s not all about the money.
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