Lines of the Rich and Impotent

John Doerr is a VC extraordinaire, a Master of the Universe, who invested in Sun Microsystems, Compaq, Lotus, Intuit, Genentech, Millennium, Netscape and Amazon. He creates worlds and then helps those worlds absorb other worlds. But last year, his daughter asked him to fix global warming, and it’s not clear he has an answer. Trust me, a daughter will do that to you.

In this video from the TED Conference, John Doerr lays out his challenge. Halfway into his 20 minute talk, his voice starts cracking as he makes the case for immediate response. At 17 minutes in, his appeal resolves to a kind of existential despair as he says,

“If we succeed, it’s gonna be the most important transformation for life on the planet since we went from methane to oxygen in the atmosphere. If [the current rate of response] is not gonna be enough, what are we gonna do? [catches breath] I. Don’t Know.

“I can’t wait to see what we TEDsters can do about this crisis.”

A mid-life crisis, actually. John Doerr, Master of the Universe, loses it at 17:15 into his talk and leans on the back of a chair to steady himself. His tears confirm his words: he’s not sure he can meet his daughter’s challenge. This is one of the most noble and human presentations I’ve ever seen. Witnessing this, one feels compelled to help him find a way to respond to his daughter’s plea, lest we signal our personal impotence to respond to our own progeny.

What strikes me is his half-hearted appeal to the TEDsters to engage their social networks, presuming methods they do not actually have, about 15:30 into the video. Social networking is more honored in the observance than its reach.

The fact is that neither they nor he have a clue how to engage their networks. These guys show up at tech conferences with other guys, even richer than we are, but they have no tools to make a difference except a vague appeal that the audience should email their friends. Is that an appeal that will survive the cocktail party?

Further, it’s stunning that the John Doerr video is actually a BMW ad.

The image of an impotent rich guy should not distress us. Each of us is impotent in the face of our child’s most fervent hope. That’s just karmic retribution – no biggie.

What’s striking is that the mechanics of mobilizing citizens to swarm over a problem to overwhelm it should be such a mystery. We Netizens seem so confident in the ability of “the Internet” and “smart mobs” and “Emergent Democracy” and the “Second Superpower” to right all wrongs that it’s stunning that it’s largely a religious issue: a matter of faith. But “the Internet” is not a social engine or a force in politics or society. “The Internet” is, basically, Home Depot. It’s got tools to fix things, but we’re largely dependent on several guilds of craftsmen to put the pieces together. If youy’ve ever remodeled a house, you know how iffy that is.
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Appealing on a more intellectual level, his friend, Vinod Khosla, presents at Google, and pushes ethanol, convincingly. What’s not convincing is that he and his audience can start the snowballs that Doc has taught us we must in order to effect change.

The three people who read and write this blog are just egotistical enough to believe that we can help Vinod Khosla and John Doerr and the Google guys and Richard Branson and their friends to build a citizen army of advocates to demand what they currently must beg for.

It’s kinda sad, really. They have the money and the data and ideas but they don’t have the political clout to achieve what they feel compelled to sell in these presentations. Notice the part about lobbying Washington, about 59:00 into Khosla’s talk at Google, or at 1:04. He has no clue how to push the politicians.

These “richest & most powerful people in the world” are rich but they are not powerful, having no clue about the mechanisms by which they might recruit millions of citizens to push legislators to do the right thing.

This is a Tipping Point. The “Big Players” represented by Khosla and Doerr are yearning for “bloggers” and social networks (54:20 into Vinod’s talk) to respond. They need bloggers and other ‘Net-based activists more than we need them.

And that’s the subject of our next post.

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