Why America Needs Companies Like Twitter

Nearly every day news publications highlight recent graduates who are “choosing Silicon Valley over Wall Street”, embracing not only the startup culture and lifestyle but the dream of getting rich quicker.  It is therefore understandable that Twitter’s initial public offering was a major event not only on Wall Street but college campuses across the world.  Twitter follows a long line of consumer-facing tech giants to price their IPOs in the last five years, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Groupon, and Zynga. But according to Dan Primack, a prominent tech blogger for Fortune magazine, there doesn’t seem to be another similar company on the IPO horizon any time in the near future, at least not one on the scale of “even my mother would know about it”.  While Primack notes that it seems like this should only matter to venture capitalists and bankers, the lack of prominent consumer technology IPOs could have a larger effect that permeates not only the entrepreneurial ecosystem, but American society as a whole. 

The phrase “technological sublime” was first developed by Perry Miller in his study “The Life of the Mind in America”.  A scholar of early American history, Perry wrote that “technological majesty join[ed] with the starry heavens above and the moral law within to form a peculiarly American trinity of the Sublime.” The steamboat, for example, evoked a sense of wonder typically reserved for God. The steamboat became “a subject of ecstasy for its sheer majesty and might, especially for its stately progress at night, blazing with light through the swamps and forests of Nature,” inspiring Mark Twain in the same way the stars inspired Van Gough.

David Nye expanded on this idea in his book “American Technological Sublime”.  Using case studies ranging from the skyscraper to the atomic bomb, Nye demonstrated how the American response to certain technologies is best described through the lens of the sublime.  The phenomenon of the technological sublime is as old as America itself. In an earlier era, Americans thronged at the 1939 World’s Fair; today we wait in long lines at the Apple Store on release day.  The Brooklyn Bridge and the Hoover Dam have been replaced by the iPod and the iPhone, but the same veneration of technology remains, giving a common source of devotion to a nation devoid of cultural and religious homogeneity.

Perhaps the most telling example of the technological sublime can be found in The Social Network.  David Fincher’s movie recounts the early story of Facebook through the lens of its founder, a self-assured college dropout who changed the world from a Harvard dorm room.  The movie went on to receive eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and prominent film critic Peter Travers of Rolling Stone named The Social Network his movie of the year.  Mark Zuckerberg’s story evokes a sense of awe among my peers, and it’s not because of the effectiveness of his customer acquisition strategy or the way he structured his data centers. Facebook became my generation’s moon landing, arousing not only admiration but national pride.

Will this same fervor greet the tech successes of the future?  Veeva Systems provided a better return on capital for its investors than Twitter, but none of my friends shared that story because Veeva is an enterprise company that provides content management solutions for the life sciences industry (and that’s not even fun to read).  Zulily went public at a $2.6 billion valuation, but barely a single tech blogger wrote about it because it has a functional revenue model and its co-founders are in their 40s. Sexy companies are started by college dropouts and don’t make any money.  Those companies evoke the sublime.  Real businesses with uninteresting founders belong on an investor’s Excel sheet, not on the front page.

While companies like Uber or Spotify could rise to become the next big consumer success stories, chances are we will have to wait at least a year and probably even longer for our next big consumer tech IPO.  This leaves the question: what happens when the technological sublime runs dry? As Michael Sacasas notes, throughout history Americans have been divided on the basis of class, ethnicity, and religion.  Americans share no strong historical blood lines or ancient ties to the land.  What has bonded Americans together, however, is a belief in technological progress reinvigorated by one sublime technology after another, from the transcontinental railroad through The Social Network. I worry that the coming dry spell will impact not only Silicon Valley and Wall Street, but our sense of what makes us American.

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