Brighter At What?

Recently, in an ABC television interview with Christiane Amanpour, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and its current executive chairman, made the observation that the young people graduating from colleges and university today were brighter than their predecessors and noted that he’d worked with some of the brightest minds of his generation.  Given Schmidt’s background in electronics and communications technology, I have no doubts that he has indeed worked with some of the brightest minds in his field.

But what exactly have these brilliant minds, especially at organizations like Google and Facebook, given to society and civilization?  They’ve certainly perfected the technological aspects of introspection, fame-seeking, ego-satisfaction, and instant communications over subjects largely meaningless in the larger scope of the problems facing society. They created a massive search engine that’s most useful for finding the general and trivial… and possibly one of their endeavors, through the Google book settlement, may have undermined the entire literary copyright process. Oh…and they’ve created some jobs and a form of bubble wealth.

I don’t see that these brilliant [and exceedingly well compensated] minds have been terribly successful at stabilizing our financial system.  In fact, in the quest for wealth, their algorithms and quant models have been highly destabilizing and have likely destroyed more companies and wealth than they’ve created.  Nor have the younger generations of bright minds made significant contributions, from what I can tell, to environmental improvement [those were made largely by pre-baby-boomers and early baby-boomers].  And that brilliance has been incredibly successful in revolutionizing the political system, in that the application of technology, money, and data to campaigns has made the results of most elections a foregone conclusion – and resulted in the greatest polarization in American history and potentially the most disastrous political deadlock since the Civil War.

From these observations, I have to ask at just what are these younger college graduates so brilliant?  Developing technologies and systems that make billions of dollars out of the trivial?  Or improving the economic and political and technology infrastructure of the nation?  Or finding new approaches to our health care and energy problems?  Or… [fill in scores of different questions dealing with fundamental improvements to society and the world]?

To my way of thinking, antiquated as it may be, brilliant is as brilliant does, and brilliance in pursuit of the trivial, no matter how remunerative, is merely brilliance in pursuit of mediocrity… and yet, no one seems to point this out.




7 thoughts on “Brighter At What?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    For all their trivia, the social media do at least two useful things:
    * make it easier for people to contact those they’ve lost touch with
    * provide another avenue for independent artists and businesses to communicate with their customers and clients

    I (literally) just heard from someone via Facebook today that I haven’t heard from in over 30 years. At the same time, I could check on the doings of a favorite artist and the specials at a local (non-chain) restaurant that’s just a bit too far away to drive to on a whim. So maybe I’ll make a more informed purchasing choice…or just save some gas.

    A search engine will find trivia if most of what’s on the web is trivia. But I’ve found obscure long out-of-print books for sale, along with all sorts of other products I wouldn’t have found otherwise (a large portion of which were gifts chosen to meet the recipients’ interests rather than simply by being on a shelf in a mall somewhere). I can find scientific papers in .gov and .edu sites (and I can find people I haven’t seen since fourth grade. I can find huge volumes of legitimately public-domain material online, including a massive range of classics.

    If it’s out there, I can probably find it, if I frame the query correctly so that I don’t have to weed through too much junk. It usually just takes remembering an unusual phrase, or at least some uncommon juxtaposition of words. (common names are tough though, esp. if one doesn’t remember other accompanying details)

    Is there some preferential ranking? Sure. But a little practice together with a little persistence or comparison shopping will defeat that easily enough.

    As for bright ideas…just a few days ago, I saw a news item on a means whereby a game was harnessed to use the player’s 3D visualization skills to solve the problem of the folding of a particular retrovirus enzyme, which may lead to medical breakthroughs.

    I’ve previously run screen savers that tied into distributed computing systems working to search radio telescope signals for ET; I could also run something similar looking for potential cancer cures.

    Half of everyone is average or below, and more than half is not much above that or below. So it’s inevitable that most media, verbiage, and competition for attention pertains to the trivial, foolish, and downright counterproductive or un-edifying. But that’s far from all that’s out there. The same tools that enable someone to catch up on their favorite “reality” TV (now there’s an oxymoron) can be used to educate oneself enough to ask the right questions when one visits one’s doctor…possibly resulting in more effective treatment, lower costs, or both.

    How exactly could one produce a tool that could only be used for good? And even if one could, what sort of weakness would result if people were so protected from trivia (let alone outright evil) that any choice they made would necessarily be a good one?

    The predominance of crap is one of the lesser costs of liberty. That only a few recognize the responsibility to produce something better is a disgrace, but the triviality of the web is just a symptom rather than cause of a problem that begins at home and proceeds throughout the optimistically labelled educational system.

    It’s easy to lament the poor uses of a neutral tool; harder to put it to better use, and harder still to use it in a way that encourages others to put it to better use. Usually your blog does one of the latter two. 🙂

  2. I’ve certainly attempted to encourage better use of both brains and their tools… perhaps because my years in politics convinced me that government mandates have restricted usefulness and are usually only effective in stopping things [often when that wasn’t even the intention].

  3. Ron Nelson says:

    What comes to mind from Eric’s “people” (problems Google have developed solutions for) are scalability and access to information.

    Scaling computational resources so many orders of magnitude opens up so many problems to solutions that has and will have even greater effect on our lives.

    And though much of the information we have access to may be trivial, my “quality of life” is better with it. From understanding and treatment of health issues to being able to find the information to attempt projects in my day-to-day life.

    If “Sturgeon’s Law” holds (and intuitively it feels close to right) accepting that 90% of what’s produced with these tools will be crap, but the 10% will lift everyone.

  4. Joe says:

    Re: I have to ask at just what are these younger college graduates so brilliant?

    Selling who you are to advertisers/the authorities:
    * knowing what books/movies/tv-shows/etc you like
    * knowing where you are at all times (cell phones, facial recognition)
    * knowing what you look like
    * tracking ideas as they infect people (cf if google knows where the flu is, guess what else it knows, see facebook tracking who reads what articles.)
    * tracking your insides (Terahertz scanners at airports)

    And automating your job away (bookstores, dvd rentals, travel agents, cashiers, etc).

    Although it’s the baby-boomers who wanted Gen-X and Gen-Y to create these things because they thought they could make money off them.

  5. Wayne Kernochan says:

    For my thoughts on a topic touching on my life’s work, see

    1. I can’t disagree with much of what you said,and I would agree that there have been great contributions by many of the minds you mention… BUT… if one looks at the distribution of wealth, power, and influence, the majority of the impact of these “brilliant minds” has still been in pursuit of mediocrity. I’m sorry, but a new and slightly faster cell phone every year is not a great contribution. Neither is a world-wide social network based on the appeal to personal vanity. We have not seen a major improvement in applied transportation technology in more than 50 years. Nor have we seen significant environmental improvement in the last twenty years. We’ve seen space flight reduced to unmanned missions. We continue to see famines around the globe. Financial instability is worse, and, if one looks at places like China, technology is being applied in more and more socially restrictive fashion, which, I suspect, is going to be more the model than that of the Arab Spring.

      As I’ve said time and time again, “more” is not necessarily better, nor is “newer” or “new technology.” What is “better” is how it is applied, and yes, in many narrow applications, technology has made a tremendous improvement. My problem with all this “brilliance” is that its least socially and societally beneficial applications are usually the best rewarded, but then again, that’s often been true in human history.

  6. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Thanks for your very thoughtful reply. At this point, I think we are pretty much in close agreement, and I suspect what’s left is a glass-half-full argument.

    Specifically, I sense that you look at what they produce and draw a straight line between that and the most important societal issues of today, and see a fundamental failure. I’m an infrastructure software guy: I look at the foundations these folks build, and ask what are the side-effects of these foundations — compared to having no one producing these foundations at all.

    A concrete example: I follow IBM. About four years ago, IBM set out to use the new networking tools to do the latest hot topic: be more innovative. They pulled in all the “brilliant minds” they had been hiring, set them up on an “innovation network” involving “crowdsourcing”, and set out to see what common themes emerged (as well as all sorts of new ideas). And in the top one or two was “smarter planet”, i.e., the environment and climate change. The result was a sharp turn, well ahead of its customers, that the same folks have fueled by their enthusiasm, to the point where IBM is spending a lot of extra cash on the smart grid and decreasing carbon emissions in its products.

    My point here is not that social-networking apps and the like have made a large direct positive impact on society. Rather, it is that the foundation has been laid to make an impact, and as a side-effect, some folks are taking advantage of that foundation who never could have before. Thus, the Europeans are focusing on creating a distributed renewable-energy grid that is fully integrated with, and takes advantage of, the Internet’s distributed model and networking. So I agree that the glass is half empty; I focus on the half-full part 🙂 – w

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