A great thing about working for a university is how it affords opportunities to contribute to cool, unexpected projects. Last October, I was approached by the University of Missouri’s Journalism School about the Journalism and Women’s Symposium (JAWS). Growing out of a panel discussion at the university in the 1980s, the symposium has involved several high-profile journalists since its creation. It was also explained to me by J-School faculty that an effort was previously underway to interview founding JAWS members. A collection of interviews and the associated content is now provided online on a website that I helped to build. The majority of work was not mine, but it’s always rewarding to see a project come to fruition.
One of my interests has to do with science and technology. When an article from Salon popped up in my Facebook feed about Neil deGrasse Tyson saying that, “society has bigger problems than can be solved with your next app,” I asked myself, “Why is this newsworthy?”
It’s established that Silicon Valley start-up types love the idea of technological disruption. The truth of the matter, however, seems to be that market-based innovation is often underwhelming. Many forms of research aren’t profitable. Others are better suited to the public sector. Also, just because one business model disrupts another business model doesn’t mean that society will benefit.
Take the ride-sharing company Uber as an example. Uber injects competition into the taxi industry. Its service model is novel, but in an era where median wages are stagnant Uber might make the problem worse. Was it hard to find a taxi before Uber? Is the mass allocation of capital to a tiny problem (people finding a ride) really worth it the money spent on it?
If America’s start-up culture is obsessed with disruption, I wish that they would spend more time thinking about whether deliberately creating disruption is worth the cost. Just because an innovator can find a way to make money by reshaping the world doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunity costs associated with investment decisions.