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).