Posted by: hdemott | April 7, 2010

NY Tech Meetup – Whistlebox – Anil Dash – Do We Need More Social

Last night I attended my first NY Tech Meetup at FIT

Big crowd and a lot of interesting companies and people

I was there in the audience to support Whistlebox – who came out with their augmented reality games for kids. CTO Chas Mastin demoed their first project The Do Crew (see here) and got a great round of applause from the crowd – and a ton of interest afterward. If you have kids – let them play around with the app and see what they think. Send Chas some feedback – or send it here and I’ll pass it on. I think they’re onto something big, but I’m biased.

At the end of an evening filled with demos  – from the recently hacked to the more polished and ready for prime time – Anil Dash took the stage to talk about his involvement with Expert Labs (here). His basic pitch was that with so much intellectual brainpower out there more and more interconnected by social networks – we should be able to harness this collective intelligence to work on big scientific projects. He then exhorted the crowd to do something about this – and send in submissions to the White House for their Technological Challenges program.

As I was sitting there listening to Anil (who is a very good speaker) it got me thinking about the big technological challenges that we face as a country – and whether we were even close to dealing with any of them – and contrasting these with what I had seen as a representative sample of projects going on.

I view big technological challenges as things like alternative energy, better scrubber technology, cleaner nuclear technology, agricultural science to make sure out food supply is secure for years to come, better desalination techniques so we never run out of water, cheaper more effective housing solutions, medical breakthroughs, better and longer lasting roads, technology making airline travel easier, more effective video conferencing to facilitate quicker and easier communication – basically: how to make everybody’s lives better without destroying our world – you know – the big challenges.

Contrast this to what we see every day and read about – and in fact saw last night – which is more and more iterations on social media. No doubt social is hot, it is being funded, it is being written about, and people are looking for the next big breakthrough in it. Fred Wilson talked about this today on his blog regarding Twitter as a platform (see here), and Anil referred to it when he showed his over 300,000 Twitter followers and exclaimed that he and all the others were addicted to social media like drug addicts. At the Tech Meetup there was one social media derivative after another, trying to get people to figure out better and weasier ways to hang out, hook up, meet up, etc… and I was wondering why so many people are interested in these sort of problems as opposed to the ones Anil professes he wants to devote his time to.

I think one reason is that many programmers are young guys in college (sorry no gals on the stage) for whom most of the big issues are just not germane. Scraping data from Facebook, or Twitter or foursquare is easy (at least to them) – whereas developing new materials and processes is not only hard – but quite costly. You need labs and real world testing areas – as opposed to dorm rooms and cloud services. It also probably takes a ton of time to generate the necessary expertise to start to challenge some of the bigger problems in life – whereas anybody with some programming experience and an idea can start a social media company. they may not be successful, but they can credibly try.Try starting a new nuclear reactor company and see how far you get.

Yet these bigger problems are exactly what we as a society should be willing to fund, with the experts  in the field.

If the White House is to take any advice on the subject – let the government decide on some of these large priorities – and then figure out a way to get funding to these bigger projects – and get some of the big VC’s and smart investors out there focused on it – rather than sifting through one social network after another.


  1. Harry, thanks for your attention last night, and the thoughtful analysis today. For what it’s worth, I agree both with your summary of the opportunity here as well as your criticisms. The way I see it, though, it’s not an either/or — we can be both working on fun, social stuff *and* we can make these meaningful advances.

    Part of my not-at-all-secret agenda on this is to get our tech community to think about exactly these kinds of concerns. Because I find, even if you get a bunch of stereotypical college kids hacking on an app (and yes, the gender balance of demos last night was disturbing), if you ask what *really* matters, their answers align with yours.

    Maybe by simply prompting them to think about that, and talk about how they’d hope to see those scientific advances on more meaningful areas of endeavor, we can inspire a few to help create that future. That’s along with the other smaller but still significant ideas they can contribute.

    Frankly, I’m optimistic about that. I think it’s the kind of thing that’s very doable. So that’s where we’re starting at Expert Labs. Maybe by the time we do our second (or one hundredth) campaign like this, we’ll see a sea change in the overall conversation.

    • As Ryan says below – he can do both.

      And I don’t doubt it.

      Maybe it’s a pipe dream – but wouldn’t it be great to come up with a huge problem that needs a ton of brainpower – and use all of our distributed social networks to then parcel out chunks of tasks: something like Google’s map reduce or amazon’s mechanical turk (maybe this is too low tech here) to finally get some traction on a specific problem.

      Now that would be cool.

  2. As one of the college kids standing up on the Tech Meetup stage the other night, my personal motivation for working on the project is the fun factor; I enjoy building things. But these fun (and admittedly rather trivial) efforts don’t exclude more serious research topics. I find they almost always benefit my other work. I’m interested in the subset of problems which I can immediately contribute a solution for, while simultaneously investing in education to bring more problems into my grasp of understanding.

    I plan to dedicate a substantial portion of my life to many of the large challenges mentioned in the post, and am doing the legwork necessary to meet those challenges. I know there are many other students doing the same. However, money is a very strong motivating force for a young person who has yet to establish himself financially, and it’s immediately apparent the “big-picture” problems, which may be incredibly profitable in the long run, are being outcompeted for young brain power by less significant, but better financed efforts that offer immediate rewards.

    I’m not a regular at the Tech Meetups, but those I have attended have presentations primarily related to social media; it’s just the forum. And there are certainly many other forums focused exclusively on technologies dedicated to solving the “big-picture” problems.

    • Thanks for the reply here.

      It was my first meetup as well. Good times for sure.

      I don’t think everything is trivial that people do – and I certainly understand the pull of easily financed social media projects. Hell, guys your age live on these mediums – so it is no different than someone my age (43) coming out of college and looking to get into cable television. It is the medium of the day – and it is well financed – and it is very easy to get started in it due to the nature of the networks and the open API’s.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Anil Dash, Casie Attardi. Casie Attardi said: RT @anildash: Harry DeMott has a considered & provocative response to my intro of @expertlabs at last night's NY Tech Meetup: […]

  4. Hi thanks for listening and posting this article, I’m in one of the teams who presented, to be specific and I just want to share my experience with you.

    When we started building this tool we didn’t think of wanting to get into social media, or doing something that requires little money, as a matter of fact we need plenty of money to get to where we want to be, what got us into it was the realization that the only way to build friendships is to get people to interact with each other and meet new people in the world, and social media can help us a lot because it’s great at dealing with groups and scaling.

    Maybe it seems trivial, but we really believe that helping people to be more engaged with their friends, and helping people meet new friends is important specially since most of us had the experience of moving to NY and making new friends in a new city is tough sometimes.

    • Thanks for the comment.
      I hope I didn’t single out any of the teams as doing work that was unworthy or useless or any such thing.
      I was there because of my involvement with Whistlebox, which makes interactive kids games – for which there is plenty of competition.
      I just happened to think that what most of the evening was about and what was said at the very end by Anil, couldn’t be more diametrically opposed – and thought that juxtaposition – particularly from a social media addict – was interesting.
      I can’t program (my last program was written in Pascal – and basic (not visual basic!) before that. While I’ve started to blog – and I am on Facebook, my real social media network consists of e-mail lists, phone calls and dinner parties or sports matches set up by these. There’s no doubt that social media forms should facilitate more personal interaction and perhaps more engagement in friends lives – although I would definitively argue that ones true inner circle of friends is going to be limited and you will end up with lots of acquaintances – some of which have the potential to become friends. To my mind, acquaintances come from adjacencies of interests or locations, and friends follow from this subset. When my wife and I moved up to Connecticut 8 years ago and knew no one, we met people because of our daughters (then 2 and 0) and ultimately branched out to meet people because I play tennis and paddle tennis – or bike. Good friends were culled from this subset. To my mind, the question is how do you then use social media to make that process easier. Facebook was a logical first step – by including only those at Harvard (a clear adjacency) and grew from there.

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