"Now, the reason that we think computer science is about computers is pretty much the same reason that the Egyptians thought geometry was about surveying instruments. And that is, when some field is just getting started and you don't really understand it very well, it's very easy to confuse the essence of what you're doing with the tools that you use. And indeed, on some absolute scale of things, we probably know less about the essence of computer science than the ancient Egyptians really knew about geometry.
Well, what do I mean by the essence of computer science? What do I mean by the essence of geometry? See, it's certainly true that these Egyptians went off and used surveying instruments, but when we look back on them after a couple of thousand years, we say, gee, what they were doing, the important stuff they were doing, was to begin to formalize notions about space and time, to start a way of talking about mathematical truths formally. hat led to the axiomatic method. That led to sort of all of modern mathematics, figuring out a way to talk precisely about so-called declarative knowledge, what is true.
Well, similarly, I think in the future people will look back and say, yes, those primitives in the 20th century were fiddling around with these gadgets called computers, but really what they were doing is starting to learn how to formalize intuitions about process, how to do things, starting to develop a way to talk precisely about how-to knowledge, as opposed to geometry that talks about what is true."
Ideas do not have to be earth shaking breakthroughs to push the human race forward. Things build on each other, effect of which is often missed.
There is wisdom is thinking long term, but not too long. The mental trap smart people fall into of thinking their idea should make an impact that will last longer and deeper only makes them vulnerable of being wrong. When you're just scratching the surface and don't know what's beneath, it's better to keep scratching than to speculate.
Even in short term, "no wireless, less space than a Nomad" changed the music industry. "Just a bigger iPod touch" is changing education.
Making a network for sharing something trivial among millions upon millions of people is still valuable.
The pyramids were friggin' tombs satisfying the superstitions of a few powerful individuals. I'd say that that is far far more trivial than a social network that provides connection and satisfaction for millions.
However, the poster I replied to did not substantiate the analogy and comparison of:
nascent computer science::geometry
Also, something I begrudge about the comparison: Ancient geometry had nowhere near the formalism and maturity of study that computer science as a field does. And even if it did? Computer science doesn't seem to be closer than arms-reach to most projects.
Hell, your modern operations and engineering in many cases is just throwing together other people's libraries and fiddling with config files until you have a liquidity event that lets you buy real talent--themselves pretty far removed from the greats of the field of computer science.
About the only thing the pyramids and your socialized twitterscapegrams have in common is the waste of thousands of man-years of productivity and intellect in the pursuit of ego and fleeting fame.
Seriously, folks, let's not treat our industry with such gravitas.
Things that ultimately become useful are most of times never conceived in a straight trajectory. It's a curvy road. Claiming Instagram was a bad turn is just purely naive conjecture by people who delude themselves into thinking they have the magic map.
All we know is, more people than most countries' populations are using this invention to make their lives better. For me at least, Instagram was a massive shift in Camera interaction. I have never captured random moments on daily basis like that before. I only took pictures when I thought I visited some place important, not that great coffee I had in some new city. A good memory to have captured.
This is not innovation, it is a small convenience that does not better us in any real way.
 Yes, the expletive was entirely necessary.
My baby daughter's grandparents and great grandmother live in another country. Her great grandmother is too old to travel, and so doesn't get to see us as often as we'd all like, so a very simple system that enables her to see regular photos of her great granddaughter is a wonderful thing. Sure, we could snap a polaroid and mail it, or try to educate her more so she could manage Facebook, but in reality these are less likely to happen and more difficult to make happen.
I'm aware in the grand scheme of things Instagram isn't important, and I'm aware it's primary motivator wasn't the situation above. However, I'd suggest being less quick to say it doesn't better us in any way, or even to say it isn't innovation.
Not all innovation needs to change the world.
 Was it really?
That said, you're clearly too emotional about this to have a reasonable discussion.
(It's really, really hard not to have disdain for this sort of thing, incidentally.)
It's not making the market more efficient as nothing but a close to duplicate graph is being created along with pictures that have slightly more value than Facebook pictures, or any other.
Why should we care?
This is a false dichotomy. It's like comparing Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" to Jimi Henrix's "Purple Haze". Egyptians may have built the pyramids, but they also built thousands of small homes and fields that don't have any value to us today. Jimi's work was likewise born amid a bunch of forgettable pop songs by others that served only to entertain for a short time. Great things are born in a sea of the mediocre. You can't optimize this away. In fact, to do so will do far more harm than good because it stifles and crushes the mind's ability to explore.
The goal of geometry wasn't to build the pyramids any more than computer science was to build the Internet. At the time, each solved a business purpose (farms for the former, ballistic calculations for the latter). They were the byproduct of several big minds that wanted to build something else beyond the practical. Ask yourself how pyramids allow me to build a better farm? How does the Internet make ballistic calculations easier?
Everything of cultural significance throughout history had little or no practical value at the time. The pyramids were huge mountains of stone, had large and priceless paintings put inside, and filled with golden items. For what? Some dead guy. Leonardo shunned practical architecture, math, and anatomy so he could paint some girl. Bach was genius in patterns and sound, but all he wanted to do was bang on ivory keys. Even science takes a long time to serve a practical purpose. If kings and nobles asked for the practical from Galileo et al., we wouldn't have the telescope or even bothered studying astronomy.  Every significant song, play, artwork, architecture, and book serve almost no practical purpose. Do we do away with them because of their apparent lack of practical purpose?
Instagram still had to solve problems that aren't directly related to hipster pictures. They had to solve image processing in real time with a small device. They had to solve the problem of updating and messaging tens of thousands of nodes with millions of users. They had to solve network outages, slow connections, and availability at scale. It taught the Instagram team those concepts can be used to solve other problems. Now they have both the technical knowledge and the capital to build something else. Maybe they solve a "big" problem or they go off to build some other widget.
I hate the obsessive view that everything needs a practical purpose. Why does Instagram et al. teams need to solve any "big" problem? When you back up far enough, most services don't solve any big problem at all. Poverty isn't solved by Google's search algorithm. War isn't solved because Paypal made it easier to buy stuff online. Hunger isn't fixed by Amazon's internet shopping. If we measure everything by the metric of solving really hard problems, then almost everything we do every day fails to live up to that metric. Is that really the metric we want to use to measure the usefulness of a business or product?
People are working on the hard problems we are facing. They are very passionate about solving them, even just a little bit. Looking at Silicon Valley and saying they aren't solving any real problem is being incredibly insulting to those people who are working on the big problems. It's like saying that "If only those SV people would look into such and such problem, it would be solved." No it won't. We aren't Superman. We would only be adding our great minds to the sea of great minds already working on those problems.
Family Guy  sums up my feelings of whether or not a service/product solves a "big" problem. Go out and do something you find interesting. Who knows what it will become or if it will serve a useful purpose.
: I understand that Astronomy was used to plan for farming, harvest, and other time keeping purposes, but that was known thousands of years prior to the Middle Age thinkers. What 17th century problem did finding out that points of light in the sky went around other points of light in the sky? Probably a whole lot of nothing. Now that knowledge is very useful, but it took 300+ years to become practical.
a more intuitive touch interface is always easier for students to give tests on, that and more interactive questions, more colors and realtime assistance, analytics, central and quick test dispatch, quicker assessments and well anytime access being 'mobile', tracking. Doing all that is impossible with paper based education, and only some of it is possible using desktop.
And besides, change in quality arises from change in methodology. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The people's opinions and the market are not sacrosanct - they are very often wrong in making human progress. George Bernard Shaw knew the attitude we need to make change:
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Every industry has aspects or branches that, at face value, seem small. Some people want to make it easier to take pretty photos, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
I think the argument is bunk. It takes tremendous capital to solve problems like "healthcare reform" (whatever that really is) and self driving cars. I've seen few investors willing to invest in "big ideas". So, instead, we see lots of Instagrams and Zyngas.
"I lack capital" is a very silly excuse given that the HN community are among the richest people in the world... by definition, if you have the luxury of even thinking about moving to Mountain View and starting some web site, you are among the richest people in the world. A lot of people wake up in the morning and their first task is to figure out how they are going to eat today.
There are plenty of people with big ideas, feature them, befriend them, help them get money. If you think something is important build it or help they people building it leverage it. The solution is never to make the people doing things you don't consider big feel small themselves.
Of course this is a mechanism that goes horribly wrong in some societies, but it's our job to make ours as good as we are able.
However, I'd say that trying to solve a hard problem, not photo sharing, has a higher likelihood of producing these improvements. Look at how competition in space, military, chips, etc. did this.
It's especially frustrating on the recruiting side to get highly skilled developers interested in working in the 'boring' world of enterprise software with no obvious path to a quick liquidity event.
I'd like to think working on big data problems related to aggregating and reporting on things like vulnerability and security incident management across fortune 100 global networks would attract some of the best and brightest, but instead I'm stuck with just hoping a candidate could fumble their way through fizz buzz without too much difficulty.
It's the smart thing to do. I have a feeling that if Instagram pivoted towards curing cancer that investors would go ape shit.
Likewise if someone put a billion dollars on the table and told me I could have it either by writing a photosharing iphone app or curing cancer, I'd sure as hell sign up for option a and not option b.
I've got some friends who'd like to build a nuclear reactor powered by thorium that could produce limitless amounts of clean energy.
To just fill out the paperwork to build a test reactor, they'd need as much money as Instagram got being acquired.
Of course nobody is going to be so prosecuted today, but I think we as a society tend to sequester those with radical views from voicing them. So I do think there are some 'Big Minds' working on 'Big Ideas' (eg. every so often you hear about someone building a car that runs on alternate fuel resources). However, if by chance these ideas do make it to a main stage then more times than not they are summarily ridiculed/discredited. The political arena seems to be the biggest example of this.
Big ideas are hard for people to get their head around. People are more likely to attack that which they don't understand, rather than give a new viewpoint the proper time to be digested and then considered as a valid opinion.
Just because someone says I have a better form of health care, democracy, capitalism, or any other 'Big Idea' that's needed, and they want to introduce it to the world. That doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot if those with the power to implement the change aren't willing to listen (and let's face it, more times than not they aren't).
Of course the resources of those building said 'Big Idea' also needs to be considered. I have a whole host of projects I'd love to build -- some of them bigger than others, but until I have the resources to put into them, and the people around me to back that up, I can't even begin to get started. That's why I'm working on the small ideas now. In fact, since she noted them specifically, I have some educational word games for kids coming in the next few weeks.
So this is where I embrace the small idea by saying, combined, small ideas bring about the sea change. Of course not every small idea will contribute, but in time, due to the demands of the market, things will change.
The sad part about this is that in many ocasions we are those with the power to implement the changes. Though we can rationalize and find an excuse not to change... after all, why me? why bother with a 'society of idiots' like someone have pointed here already?
However, I think more often than not people lack the ability to see how their small action can add up to something big. The vote with your wallet analogy being the greatest of all.
If the hive-mind would focus their energy tidal waves would erupt.
Of course there could be, but what this woman fails to realize is that smart people are not obligated to donate their time and effort towards the betterment of a society of idiots.
There is nothing wrong with pursuing "small ideas" for the sake of personal profit.
Society doesn't hold together by magic. It doesn't evolve in a mutually beneficial direction by magic. People have to make it happen.
Is it okay for some people to make little games, or for some people to want to selfishly make a little money? Sure; a robust society can tolerate that. It's when these attitudes become prevalent that the problems start to happen.
Where's the imagination? Can you see that this is a deep cultural problem: namely the fixation on maximizing one's personal profit at the expense of ignoring bigger needs. Unfortunately, we as a society deify money to the extent that if anyone even suggests that this isn't a sustainable practice, everyone gets all pissy. I don't know what a society would look like, but I'd love to change attitudes towards money such that we stop squandering minds on the latest social mobile local app.
That would be a true disruption.
Whoa. I expected some petty selfishness and shallow sophistry, and am very pleasantly surprised by the general quality of comments here.. but yours kinda takes the cake, it's even worse than anything I braced myself for. Which says a lot. Just mind-boggling.
Correct. But it sure makes for boring people, because they're too busy trying to please the mainstream.
Should we all go into building, what she considers, "important" products?
I tried to build an "important" product before, and I was miserable, because you have to deal with miserable people most of the time, fuck that, now I'm building fun stuff - not that, some people might find fun in the healthcare industry.
Maybe she doesn't see any value on Instagram and Zinga. But I think is wrong to consider them a "small" idea. I think they're huge and they're a big part of our lives.
The guy who met his new wife on Instagram might disagree with you. Or the person who avoided extreme boredom at work as a doorman because of Draw Something that allowed him to keep his job so far this year might disagree with the journalist too.
In the end, not everyone think like you Kara, and I think it's your job to respect that.
By your logic, nobody should speak their minds.
I think it's naive of you to posit that Instagram, Zynga, etc. are life-changing ideas.
Not that entertainment doesn't have value, but I think she's spot on in expressing some concern that some of our generation's brightest minds are working on "pornified" entertainment.
It's interesting to see some of the responses here. They are in some cases quite defensive and/or dismissive of this observation. Some of the defenses raised:
1. Deferred altruism: "I'm making the easy money now but I'll (work on big ideas,give back,etc) later."
I question the sincerity of these statements. For one thing, human nature is funny when it comes to money. How much is enough? Most of us here aren't independently wealthy so we probably think several million dollars will do, tens of millions will be plenty. I bet you'll find many people with that kind of net worth still thinking they're poor and they need to make more. It's probably an easy trap to fall into.
People think money won't change them. For most people it does.
More to the point, the biggest motivator is the need to succeed. One reason startups are successful is it's either succeed or die. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that. I truly believe you're much more motivated and productive when your (financial) life depends on it. If you're wealthy, most of the time you're just not going to be as motivated. It's a rare individual that is the exception.
2. Big problems are hard/expensive.
No actually they're not. Some are, sure. Thorium reactors would be an expensive problem.
A lot of other problems in the fields of machine learning, bioinformatics, etc are largely just software problems. Computing power continues to get exponentially cheaper. The Khan Academy is a big idea with very little costs to entry or operational costs.
3. "This is happening in other areas too!"
Who cares? You're not responsible for anyone's behaviour other than your own. Plus of course two wrongs don't make a right.
I get the desire to strike it rich. I really do. There's nothing wrong with that. It seems disingenuous--even dishonest--to suggest there is a deeper altruistic motive. Most of the time there isn't.
I don't see Kara's comments (or mine for that matter) as a criticism of the motives of any particular individual or company, merely a lament that society as a whole places such value on what are really shallow desires and distractions. I'm sure it'd be harder to get funding for something as unsexy as, say, protein folding than it would be for creating a social network for cats and that really is sad.
I avoid nearly all "startup" events now I everyone you talk with is working on something that's not doing anything useful but trying skim money.
Even some of the best out there are just trying to ride trends of social, mobile, etc. hoping for a big score. But to what end? Your first point rings very true with me.
A well known VC friend of mine told me that most of his college friends went to Goldman Sachs saying that all of them said they'd make a fortune and then change the world - they did and then they didn't.
Sorry, I cannot let that slide. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Advertising simply shifts the cost of the lunch to the price of the advertised products, and then adds additional costs (using Google to illustrate):
• Cost of building and operating Google's ad infrastructure and business. Huge.
• Cost of ad production, ad agency, and other overhead. Huge.
• Cost incurred by the advertiser's competitors who don't need to advertise, but are forced to do so to not lose customers to the other. Expensive advertising arms race ensues. Huge.
• Social cost. I'd argue this is the largest. The health of society, democracy and the free market rests on the populace being well informed, not misinformed, not manipulated. The rare cases where advertising is honestly informative are far outweighed by dishonest or manipulative advertising. If you don't see this, I won't try and convince you right here, right now. There are better ways to inform the public about good products, for example something like Yelp but without Yelp's conflict of interest which stems from, yes you guessed it, advertising!
Who do you think ultimately pays these additional costs?
As to your point about the developing world, or the poor for that matter: I think you are trying very hard to feel better about your job. I understand. I had to work on an advertising system for a few years. But advertising often targets the least informed and the least educated in society, and when it does, it wreaks its greatest social cost. If GMail advertising is not targeting users in developing countries, it's only temporary. I'll bet they already are.
Speaking as someone who has been pretty far down this road, the "inexpensive" part of bioinformatics is relatively unimportant. You don't get anywhere real without lab work, and that's as expensive as ever.
I'd love to see the web2.0 moguls funnel their money into antibiotics research or hydrogen-generating bacteria, but make no mistake: that kind of work takes a lot of cash.
"The need to change has to be greater than the luxury of staying the same."
Change is difficult. Change needs to be embraceable.
Change needs to be proposed as well though. Change does need big minds.
Sure, it's academic/institutional funding, but whatever.
My comment takes the parent pretty literally, which is mostly a response to how glib the parent comment is. If only the tech wunderkinds were pursuing interesting problems, they would solve them (and never mind the thousands of people and millions of dollars that are actively devoted to those problems).
Further, if your small idea makes you rich you can always funnel later time and success-money into altruistic charities and start ups.
That said, I still think most people want money and will take the easiest path to money - if small ideas can get them there then they will gravitate towards implementing those ideas.
Wealth has absolutely no relation to success unless you define being wealthy as your goal. It's not even a consequence of being successful on whatever you set your life goals to.
This is not always wise.
I want to work on big/hard problems that affect people's lives. Things that require imperfect solutions, or require a lot of research. Is there any way to find these? I tend toward more of a research bent, personally, but it's hard to hear about them in the HN bubble. I'm not looking to make a gazillion dollars, but rather to find something that is intellectually challenging enough to last me quite awhile. Anyone have any ideas?
If you're interested in impact, i think it's easier to build an influential project(influencing 1000+ or more people in a reasonably important way) than a meaningful research. There are many useful research papers by academia that haven't been developed or commercialized and could be the base for useful projects. For example: .
ParkNet: Drive-by Sensing of Road-Side Parking Statistics
Facebook is overthrowing governments. Google is making self driving cars and elevators to the moon. Neither of these companies stated this as their mission or probably even dreamed of these things in year 1 or 2.
A generation from now we'll see what can happen when you give young, brilliant, idealistic founders complete control of their multi-billion dollar companies.
This is just the beginning.
Photocopiers used to be banned, with huge punishments for ownership, in east Germany due to their power to spread ideas quickly. But it's as silly to say that xerox brought down the berlin wall as it is to say that Facebook is bringing down governments.
You are full of it.