60 second soap box

  • Darren Waters
  • 9 Mar 07, 01:25 AM

One of the reasons that San Francisco flourishes as a hub of technology is because there is a great network of like-minded people.

I attended the SF New Tech Meet Up last night where tech firms pitched their ideas to an audience made up of tech lovers, possible investors, journalists and bloggers.

Questions were thrown at the presenters - and no mercy is shown. These companies have to know their stuff.

It was akin to a live Dragon's Den - the BBC Two business ideas show. But this is something firms in San Francisco live day in and day out.

They are in the den every day of their working lives. For every great start-up idea there are 10 others just as good, and 100 others that are not too shabby.

I'll be writing about this aspect of SF tech life in a feature next week but I wanted to report on one element - the 60 Second Soap Box.

This was the chance of anyone in the audience to pitch an idea, ask a question, make a declaration.

And it was an eye-opener.

There were programmers looking for jobs, CEOs looking for programmers, companies looking for investment and even a philosopher who thought he could help firms grow.

"Think about want you need to make, not what you can make," he said.

Sound advice.

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Hi there,

My name is Alexander Pagidas and I am the philosopher you mention in your post. Thanks for spreading the word for this great event. I thought it would be helpful to include the rest of that mini speech I gave at the 60 second soap box so as to give my advice its proper context:

Technical training provides you with skills similar to philosophy with one major omission: It doesn’t teach you about value.
Technically trained people know how to make things without necessarily knowing whether those things would be good to make. They are fascinated by the possibilities of new technologies and have a tendency to create things we don’t need, just because they can. No wonder so many new products and services plunge into business failure.
A philosopher educated in what people value and why, and its basis on human nature, can provide essential expertise that guides research to new products and services that we as humans really need, therefore increasing the chances of business success.

If you think that's important, talk to me.

San Francisco, and indeed the whole Bay area, is an amazing place. We often go over there for inspiration, to meet likeminded people and even thought about moving there back in '99. I have attended loads of tech parties during the dotcom boom, the dotcom crash and now this new emerging trend. The great thing about the people here is that they love what you do and I think this makes a huge difference. There are no closed minds here and people are willing to help. They are also incredibly tough in business, but this is tempered with mutual respect.

The report of the SF tech Meet Up encourages me. We put business students in similar kinds of bidding situations for their project assignments in which they have to make a pitch to real business clients wanting to use their services. Some of the evaluators are those used in the Dragon's Den programmes. Groups sometimes fail in two or even three bids. The pressures mount as students worry that failure will threaten their MBA success. Soft-centred academics (OK, I'm one) find it as stressful as the students, but next time around I'll direct them to Darren's blog, to illustrate why it is an important skill to acquire..

PS: I've often though MBAs need some philosophy in their course. Now is that an offer from Alexander?

  • 4.
  • At 12:35 PM on 09 Mar 2007,
  • Tod wrote:

I’m not sure that Alexander Pagidas understands what motivates those he calls ‘techies’. Nor does he have much enthusiasm for the natural justice of ‘natural selection’.
The progression from analogue to digital thinking has opened up a vast new land of opportunity for inventive minds to play in. It’s creativity and ‘play’ that motivates these ‘cutting edge’ inventors. Whether something is going to turn out to be useful, ethical, profitable, worthy and other such ‘values’ is of secondary importance at the time of invention. And it will always be that way. It’s the nature of invention.
You can’t constrain or curb the creative urge without killing it. Give inventors free rein. Then let natural selection weed out those ideas whose time is not right, this time round.
I would also question the concept of ‘technical training’. Inventors are educated not trained. You can’t train someone to be creative for the same reason that you can’t train someone to be spontaneous or to take the initiative. It’s something you take, not something you wait to be given.

Hi again,

Let me take this opportunity to respond to two posts that came up. My answer to the first (brought up by Tudor) will blend in to a response to the one by Tod.

Tudor, it is an offer in a way; so feel free to email me about it. I do think MBAs ought to have more philosophy in their curriculum. Not just because they will "profit" from it by bettering their judgment and promoting lateral and critical thinking but also because it will help them become more aware of the effects of their activities. Bertrand Russell remarked: "A man is not allowed to practice medicine unless he knows something of the human body, but a financier is allowed to operate freely without any knowledge at all of the multifarious effects of his activities, with the sole exception of the effect upon his bank account." (from his essay "On Youtful Cynicism"). We live in an ever increasing interconnected world and people who are entering business today ought to be more aware of the "externalities" their actions engender and have a clearer grasp of the consequences of their actions. We simply cannot go about "our business" anymore without caring of the effects of that business in society, the environment and in the kind of relationships and outlook it promotes. In the funeral oration of Pericles you find the following words: "We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here [Athens] at all." (from History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides) Perhaps it would be fruitful to ponder why the statesman of the city which has been admired by generations for its cultural significance would oust a large number of businessmen that operate in our societies today with exactly the mindset referred to.

Finally, one feature that comes up through a proper acquaintance with philosophy is the idea of free thinking. Thinking not constrained by practical considerations or fixed dogmas and rules is of an altogether different kind.
The reason behind John Stuart Mill claiming in his essay "On Liberty" that those who are acquainted with the higher pleasures of intellectual contemplation will rarely prefer the lower pleasures of mere sensual titillation and Aristotle's elevation of "theoria" (contemplative activity) as the mode of being ultimately worth striving for, is because an activity undertaken for its own sake is much more fulfilling than one that is done for the sake of some other end. An activity undertaken for its own sake opens us up to the aesthetic dimensions of knowledge. That is why mathematicians and physicists talk of beauty and elegance. They are literally enraptured by creation itself, not by what "use" it will have. It comes as no surprise that Kant wrote that in order to be open to an object's beauty one ought to look at it disinterestedly, meaning without any *practical interest* in mind. No one can feel the beauty of a landscape at the same moment he thinks of how much money it will make him on the real estate market. That is why Schopenhauer wrote: "Genius is its own reward; for the best that one is, one must necessarily be for oneself. Further, genius consists in the working of the free intellect, and as a consequence, the productions of genius serve no useful purpose. The work of genius may be music, philosophy, painting, or poetry; it is nothing for use or profit. To be useless and unprofitable is one of the characteristics of genius; it is their patent of nobility."

That is why, contrary to what Tod seems to believe, we are actually in congruence since I am deeply aware as to what fosters creativity, being a creative person myself (as my writings and art demonstrates).
Moreover, if you read my post again you will see that I never used the slang colloquialism "techies" to somehow imply an insipid condescension to those who have not studied the liberal arts. I used the term technical training because learning to code has similarities yet is different from receiving scientific training. I differentiated it from education, not because it cannot be "an education" as well, but because many times it is taught as a skill. That doesn't make it less valuable but it does make it different.

I agree with you Tod, that creativity ought to be given free rein, but I didn't say "Technical training doesn't teach you about value" instead of "values" accidentally. You see, I was referring to a mode of thinking not to a set of ethical precepts within which creativity should remain restrained, and that mode of thinking is the *evaluative* form of thinking as opposed to *instrumental reason* which is a sole consideration of means without ends. Both Dewey and thinkers from the Frankfurt school (Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin) have stressed that the denuding of reason over the years to merely instrumental reason has robbed us of our better judgments. A scientist or technician is not hindered by an evaluative mindset added to his cognitive repertoire but on the contrary enriched since value judgments are necessary to sift out the good ideas from the bad ones.

As to whether you can train someone to be creative, though I see where you're coming from, consider this dilemma: Either it is impossible to train someone to be creative or we haven't found a way. You cannot rule out the possibility that there is a way to improve someone's creativity, even though thousands of ways might have failed so far. It brings to mind Edison's remark when he was asked: "Mr. Edison, how can you continue to try to invent the light bulb when you have failed over 5,000 times?" To which Thomas Edison replied, "Young man, I have not failed 5,000 times. I have successfully discovered 5,000 ways that do not work and I do not need to try them again."

Respectfully yours,

Alexander Pagidas.

Hi Darren,
It was a pleasure meeting you at the event.

It is refreshing to hear an outsiders perspective in your post and your readers' comments. Being immersed in the (sometimes) self-celebrating and navel-gazing Silicon Valley biz culture, it is easy to give for granted how priviledged we are to be so close to where so much innovation brews.

Look forward to reading your article...


I've often spoken to college campuses about starting your own business and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Frequently, I get people saying 'I'm an IDEA man' or something, to whit I usually reply:

Out in the Silicon Valley there is a guy with the exact same idea as you, the only difference is he knows how to build his idea into a product, get funding for the product, staff up a company and sell that product to the world. And why? Because out there they do it all the time, every single day.

Everyone has ideas, but not everyone can (or even tries) to act on them.

Yeah, well said Andrew.
One of my favourite quotes is Steve Jobs "Real artists ship".
So while "think about what you need to make, not what you can make" is good advice, "think about what you need to make and then stop thinking about it and make it" is gonna get you further, whether you're making a new horse feeder, video game or philosophical argument.

If an animal living on the Galapagos islands were to turn to his fellow animals and say: "I'm special" chances are that his fellow animals would respond by saying: "So are we!"

Even though the other animals are right, it would be a mistake for that animal to believe that he is generally common. Nor would any gains in motivation be made were he to internalize such a belief. Silicon Valley is the Galapagos of ideas regarding new technologies. Do not mistake me, I do not think anything is gained by an idle complacency originating from some parochial narcissism. But we should not level the field to any aspiring young man who thinks he has ideas that are valuable, especially without even hearing what those are.
Besides, I do not believe we live in a world so overpopulated with idea persons that any assertion of the sort ought to be brought down by an a priori judgment (given that I doubt Andrew makes any special claim of omniscience regarding the ideas of everybody in Silicon Valley) proclaiming the banality and implied futility of being "merely" a person of ideas.
Coming up with ideas should not be viewed as something insignificant unless they are accompanied by a business plan, a nod by some VC and a willing list of employees. I think there are more persons out there that know how to do the latter activities than there are idea persons; yet those business skilled people sometimes can't do anything with them because they are missing the element that jump starts the whole process - a good idea. Many scientists have great ideas but no skills in business. Does that mean we shouldn't listen to them until they become businessmen? I think the world needs more Teslas and less Trumps (Edison was an exception for being blessed with both genius and business shrewdness).
Ideas do not acquire their value by being able to be commercialized or whether their originator has the capacity or knowledge to do that.
Is it necessary for a screenwriter to know of all the details that are necessary for a movie to be made, from production to marketing to the chemistry, electronics and physics that went into the machines that project the movie in theatres, in order for him to write a successful screenplay? Absolutely not.
What we may be witnessing at the moment is the birth of a new niche in business: the idea person. Just because he doesn't write business plans, negotiate with VCs, and staff a business, doesn't mean he can't be valuable to one.
In the old days a businessman had to do everything by himself: accounting, finance, marketing, sales etc. Just as modern businesses grew by dividing their labor and assigning specific people to each post, it doesn't seem to me such an absurd conjecture to imagine that the position of 'an idea person' will have its own spot in the businesses of the future - if that spot doesn't exist already in some progressive companies of today.


Alexander Pagidas.

I love the conversation here!

Darren, thanks for joining us last week! And a special thanks for helping me haul cold beer to the event!

My name is Myles. I organize the SF New Tech Meetup. It's been a wonderful experience giving the community a voice. The goal of the meetup is to provide a platform for dialog and the exchange of ideas. Not so much a den ... but we do try to keep each other on our toes.

I keep hearing wonderful stories that result because of the meetup... like the one I heard this morning. A friend of mine who runs istumbler gave a demo a few months ago. He was just told me he was hired by Apple (two offers!) -- which a direct result of participating in the meetup that night... and meeting the right person.

How awesome is that? :)



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