Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The skeptics are wrong all the time"

Marc Andreessen has a new interview up and it is characteristically packed with silliness. If things had gone better for ViolaWWW, do you think Pei-Yuan Wei would have gotten this annoying?

What did you do?

I just went to college. I did my thing. I came out here in ’94, and Silicon Valley was in hibernation. In high school, I actually thought I was going to have to learn Japanese to work in technology. My big feeling was I just missed it, I missed the whole thing. It had happened in the ’80s, and I got here too late. But then, I’m maybe the most optimistic person I know. I mean, I’m incredibly optimistic. I’m optimistic arguably to a fault, especially in terms of new ideas. My presumptive tendency, when I’m presented with a new idea, is not to ask, “Is it going to work?” It’s, “Well, what if it does work?”

But clearly you don’t think everything’s going to work.

No. But there are people who are wired to be skeptics and there are people who are wired to be optimists. And I can tell you, at least from the last 20 years, if you bet on the side of the optimists, generally you’re right.

On the other hand, if there’d been a few more skeptics in 1999, people might have kept their retirement money. Isn’t there a role for skepticism in the tech industry?

I don’t know what it buys you. Let me put it this way. If you could point to periods of time in the last hundred years when everything just stabilized and didn’t change, then maybe yes. But that never seems to actually happen. The skeptics are wrong all the time.

There is a huge survivor bias in the way Andreessen and other creative disruptors compile their case studies. They only remember the lottery tickets that paid off and this leads them to dispense some very bad advice.

When it comes to investing in innovation, skeptics are right a lot -- quite possibly most -- of the time. We've been at this for well over a century, at least since Edisonades started showing up next to the dime Westerns. If you couldn't be a Bell or a Wright, you could at least be the investor who got in on the ground floor.

The trouble was, then and now, that there tend to be more Paige Compositors than light bulbs. Uncritical blanket optimism is a bad way to approach investments. I'd also argue that, if you're setting your sights higher than Snapchat, it's also a bad way to promote innovation but that's a topic for another post.

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