I’ve been struck lately by a series of basically unrelated articles that all circle around a similar point: Felix Salmon on Wall Street, New York Times on IBM’s Watson and the Guardian on American stagnation. While they’re hitting on rather different subjects, at the heart of much of the conversation is what role technology actually has (and will continue to have) in the wellbeing of the American economy.
There is no doubt I believe in the power of technology to help change the world, but this really struck me: “Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and eBay may be changing the way we read and communicate – but in the US they have created fewer than 100,000 direct jobs.” It’s commonly held startup belief that the ultimate goal is to build as scalable a company as possible, which roughly translates to running your business with as few people as possible (let the computers do the work). In other words when you’re building a company today you’re trying not to create jobs. During the Google/Groupon talks one of the things people said about Groupon (can’t find a reference right now) is that they’re less impressive because they’re so human dependent (they have a large salesforce, as that’s the only proven way to do local commerce). What if you were to create a company with the goal of creating as many jobs as possible, not as few?
Then something else struck me: Each of those five American companies have created entire industries. While they may not be “direct jobs” Google has created agencies and consultancies focused on helping clients rank higher in their engine, iDevelopers are probably the hottest programming commodity in the market and revenues are predicted at $15 billion for 2011, obviously there are quite a few companies who create Windows applications and in case you haven’t heard, the video game market (Microsoft makes XBox) is doing okay, on a small scale Amazon’s Mechanical Turk allows anyone to turn simple skills into pay and AWS powers just about every startup I know and then there’s eBay, which is responsible for a store in just about every city in the country that will help you box up your junk, not to mention the crazy interest (and 30-some-odd TV shows) in antiques.
With all that said, though, I can’t help but think that Felix Salmon is right in his feeling that all of this activity is leaving a vast majority of people behind:
Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns. The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.
It’s not just the stocks that people are being left out of, it’s the companies as well.
As usual I’m not quite sure I have a conclusion here, just more questions. I do wonder what a company would look like if you tried to optimize around creating as many jobs as possible, instead of as few. I’d also be quite curious to see that 100,000 American jobs number include the jobs created by the platforms those companies are responsible for.