I turn 48 this week and like most people passing from one year to the next, I find myself a bit nostalgic for the way things used to be. One of the things I miss…a little at least…has gotten extremely difficult to find. Ironically, the thing I can’t find is a good search.
Like many people over the age of 40, my parents spent a boat-load of money when I was a lad to buy me a set of encyclopedias. I had the Encyclopedia Brittanica and the sales guy convinced my parents to buy another set of books called the Annals of America, an outstanding set of 20+ books, chronologically bound, with writings from authors of the day, on the issues of the decades of America’s existence. Unfortunately, like many things in American life, the series ended with the Nixon Presidency. I distinctly remember casually flipping through the encyclopedias when searching for information about some piece of homework or term sheet I was completing. I can’t tell you anything specifically that I learned, but I credit these wasted hours browsing and searching for my success at answering questions from Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy.
The same was, and occasionally still is for me, with the dictionary. Geekily, I was in the habit of highlighting good words I found while I was looking for some other word. My vocabulary is definitely better than that of my dog, Jethro, because of this “wasted” time looking for a particular word but perusing the plethora of others in the lexicon (see what I mean?)
Phone books, those marvels of small font sizes and garish ads on extremely thin paper, provided an opportunity to make chance findings of new repairmen and home improvement specialists. I’m not sure that any modern digital attempts have been as successful at helping businesses “get local” as the yellow pages were. There was tremendous knowledge to be gleaned about your neighborhood and community from flipping through the pages on the way to the little business you were seeking.
Without question, the internet gets us where we’re going faster than paper ever did. It’s like the express train to your destination. The internet allows us to search and find the precise thingy we’re looking for. Click-Click-Pow—Knowledge. All of the companies formed in the Google generation are fortunate to skip the time wasted while tracking down precisely what they’re looking for. Today’s web based companies can certainly get up and running quicker than companies from the 20th Century, mostly because the software is easier to build and deploy and distribute than in the era before Google. But there are also fewer dark alleys of knowledge and connections…LinkedIn alone must save dozens of sometimes fruitless hours searching for the right contact to make.
Google-era tools are obviously also making communication more constant allowing more entrepreneurs to believe they can build a company virtually. When I challenge the strategy of some recent college grad insisting that he can build a company with buddies in various locations…I see that look. That little sideways glance at the gray in my goatee. That subtle raise in the eyebrows that says “Oh…you’re older than I thought you were, because you probably don’t spend 7 hours a day on Google Hangout.” It’s ok. Not your fault kiddo…you just didn’t understand the serendipitous power of Encyclopedia Brittanica. In a virtual team you miss too many opportunities to accidentally discover your next opportunity. There is solidifying value to spending 40+ hours per week together with your new venture ship-mates. Humans are wired with sensory perceptions beyond what can be accepted over the internet miles. No latency issues. No crappy pixelated choppy images and “hold on, let me text John and see if he can help us get Sam access to the powerpoint”. Just a couple of founders in a room, with a whiteboard and chemical-odor-emitting markers…hashing their way to a solution and discovering serendipitous knowledge while doing so. Like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise…we’re all in this search for intelligence together.
Soon, very soon I think, kids and an entire generation of entrepreneurs under 25, will not know the pleasure of accidentally learning “stuff” while roaming their way to their destination. If apocalypse comes, will they know how to forage for food? Or will they be lost without the ability to wikigooglezon.com for it? Will they ever try some restaurant they’re walking by in New York, without checking it out first on some website? Will their life be pointed and direct with all their routes carefully mapped and presented by pleasant digital female voices telling them where to go? Or will they allow themselves to be exposed? Will one thing just…lead to another? Will they be vulnerable to things that aren’t quite what they were looking for but… just adjacent to them? We’ve tried to teach our kids, and now I teach young entrepreneurs, that the adventure is partly in the journey…but I don’t know if we’ve been strong enough to overcome the inexorable power of a precisely delivered digital vastness.