The Internet we want

I couldn’t quite put it in words, but there was something that nagged me as I re-emerged from two days at LeWeb ’10 in Paris (videos here). A feeling that, as we collectively build the Internet, we’re building a better and better toy for a digital elite, much like the audience in the room. And why not? Even when we innovate outside the online domain, we get excited at brain-wave exploration, solar-powered planes, and iPhone-controlled drones. We’re geeks, we like geeky stuff, and some of us like it so much that we become entrepreneurs and build it.

Then we wash our collective conscience by contributing to a children’s hospital via Facebook Causes, donating to the Homeless World Cup, or funding some third-world entrepreneurs on Kiva.

And yes, the very best of us apply their geek skills to big problems and come up with big solutions that do realistically, in the long run, have a shot at changing the world: I am thinking of Shai Agassi and Better Place. They should be applauded. The rest of us seem to be too busy making money with gaming, or coupons, or whatever the flavor of the day is.

But we still have a digital divide to deal with, it’s in our own backyard, and it’s not getting any smaller. While we live more and more digitally enriched lives each day, our next-door neighbors don’t know how to deal with their Facebook privacy settings, and don’t care. For us, the future of information in a post-WikiLeaks world is a crucial matter of civic engagement worth getting intensely preoccupied with; for the less digitally literate, it’s one more headline among the gossip in the evening newscast. Did we think that the Internet would educate and inspire people, empower the downtrodden, lift millions out of poverty and disease? While we certainly enjoy our digital toys, I’m sorry to say that very little of this has happened. The Internet hasn’t yet made a difference.

And here’s the paradox: as Umberto Eco said in a recent interview, fifty years ago the television educated the poor and entertained the rich. Today, the Internet is educating the rich and entertaining the poor.

I have always believed in the Internet as a force for societal change. But we’re not yet building the Internet we want.

Endeavor and the force of entrepreneurship. A proposal: bring it to Italy

Ever since I first heard of the global nonprofit Endeavor, an outfit dedicated to mentoring and empowering entrepreneurs in emerging countries, a few years ago (former colleague Matt Bannick sits on Endeavor’s board), I’ve thought: why, we need this thing to come to Italy. “It’s venture capital without the capital,” as founder Linda Rottenberg says, in this profile in the Wall Street Journal Magazine. (“Rottenberg […] had made her way to Latin America in the mid-1990s. Her eureka moment came in Buenos Aires. Riding in a taxi cab with a driver who had a Ph.D. in engineering, she asked why he wasn’t an entrepreneur—back home, engineers were starting dotcoms. He reacted with a quizzical look: “A what?””)

Don’t get me wrong: entrepreneurs need capital, too. But first of all they need to live in an environment that understands, appreciates and supports the culture of entrepreneurship. Not the mom-and-pop entrepreneurship of opening a bar or buying a taxi license: but the type of work that, through process or management or technological innovation (it doesn’t have to be technology, although that helps), creates a scalable business where there was none before, and therefore creates value for customers, lifts people out of unemployment, and contributes to growth.

So, here is my proposal: dear Endeavor team, please come to Italy. We’re not that different from the Latin American countries where your work has been so impactful.

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Paris Imperfect

I am writing from the apartment we rented for a few days in a prime Rive Gauche location through an organization called ParisPerfect.com.

The apartment is cozy and stylish at the same time; the organization, however, leaves something to be desired. I called from the airport to confirm that the apartment was ready, and was told I could proceed to our greeting appointment. When we got there, we were met at the building by a greeter who was new at her job, and immediately apologized because the keys she had brought did not work and she could not open the apartment door; she advised us to take a walk for about half an hour, while she waited there for a colleague to deliver another set of keys from the office. And walk we did, under the wet snow falling on Paris; when we returned, our greeter and the new guy informed us that unfortunately the elevator did not work, but would be fixed in the afternoon. So we got some help schlepping our bags up four flights of stairs, and reached the door of the apartment, behind which a distinct vacuum cleaner noise could be heard. The cleaners were still inside, and they had left their key on the inside of the door lock: that’s why our greeter hadn’t been able to let herself in and check the apartment before our arrival.

Once that mishap was cleared and we were finally inside, we were given the tour of the apartment, and our greeter tried three of our credit cards for the security swipe on her portable machine before calling the office for help (insert chip side into the bottom of the device) and succeeding.

The kitchen window looks out over a tiny courtyard, and the courtyard is covered by a net stretched horizontally just below our windows, so that the pigeons don’t nest inside, I guess. But as a side effect there is a pigeon, half covered in snow, lying dead on the net outside the kitchen window. It’s been there a while already, apparently. And the cleaners are not allowed to reach out to remove and dispose of it, due to some health or union or other French regulation. So the kitchen offers a view of a dead pigeon, and will probably offer it for the duration of our stay.
The elevator, by the way, has not been fixed; and tomorrow is Sunday. Have a great weekend!

Update, Dec. 21: The elevator was fixed on Tuesday afternoon; the pigeon stayed dead. After soliciting feedback by email, ParisPerfect wrote back with apologies. Apologies accepted.