July 10, 2000
By Robert G. Snyder/ email@example.com,
Robert G. Snyder is a technology business and
policy consultant who was formerly vice president of the Suburban
Maryland High Technology Council.
Entrepreneurs have become almost deified in American
society over the last several years. Their image has become romanticized in our
culture, a kind of new American cowboy--robust, brave loners setting out to
conquer the frontiers of cyberspace. The only thing missing is sex appeal. They
have not quite managed to surmount their nerdy images, but, hey, a couple of
billion dollars can go a long way toward overcoming sporadic hygiene and really
bad taste in clothes.
The truth is, entrepreneurs come in many shapes and sizes,
largely determined by their individual backgrounds and personalities. There are
certainly plenty of under-30 hyperdriven MBA entrepreneurs looking to make a
quick killing on the latest dot.com application. At the other extreme are more
veteran, laid-back scientists and engineers who are looking to perfect
technologies that they hope will have commercial value.
What is becoming increasingly important, however, are the
cultural implications of our entrepreneurial society. How does it fit into our
more traditional liberal and conservative politics and philosophy? Two recent
books address this issue from different perspectives and come up with different
answers. David Brooks, writer, editor and pundit with the conservative Weekly
Standard, has written "Bobos in Paradise," which views the emergence
of a merged bourgeois bohemian (hence, "Bobo") culture as a generally
positive development. On the other hand, Paulina Borsook, a former contributing
writer with Wired magazine, has written "Cyberselfish," a caustic view
of what she sees as the predominant libertarian bent of the new
Both writers start from a common observation -- that
today's entrepreneurs represent a melding of the '60s counterculture (but not
its political radicalism) with the capitalism of the '80s. For Brooks, the
result is a kind of apolitical pragmatism, combining a tolerance of personal
conduct (thus avoiding the moral agenda of the far right) with a benign
self-fulfillment version of capitalism.
For Borsook, the result is much less sanguine. Perhaps
because of her Silicon Valley perspective, she sees a much more negative
political stance emerging among the new entrepreneurs that she has observed.
Those politics reflect an aggressive libertarianism that largely rejects
government's role in society. The broader cultural implications, for Borsook,
are a rejection of most any sense of history, community or social contract.
While they are also not part of the moral majority, their aggressive
anti-government orientation clearly puts them in the conservative camp.
Borsook notes a divide between the old and new generations
of entrepreneurs. For the old generation, who came up closely tied to government
contracts or research programs, there is more of a New Deal orientation,
recognizing government's long-term unifying role and, with it, a sense of shared
civilization. For the new generation, history only began in the '90s with
government playing a less direct role in their lives. With the frenetic pace and
near-speculative nature of the Internet boom, it is little wonder that
entrepreneurs think they have done it all themselves and fall into a kind of
narcissistic social Darwinism. Of course, this does not always work out
positively, as witnessed by the experience of Michael Saylor, our very own
poster child for entrepreneurial hubris.
Neither Brooks' nor Borsook's entrepreneurs offer any
reason for optimism. While Brooks' bobo entrepreneurs are amiable apolitical
boobs, Borsook's are actively injurious to the common good. So far, Washington
(D.C., that is) has not gone entirely the way of Silicon Valley. Perhaps it is
because of the continuing importance of the federal government to so many of our
high tech firms--as clients and as regulators. It may also be that we possess
some of those older generation role models who combine entrepreneurship with a
sense of community.
Mario Morino is our foremost role model. For
entrepreneurs, his Netpreneur program has actually created a community among
this isolated group by demonstrating that a more experienced generation feels
responsible for passing on its wisdom to the next. And for the truly needy in
our society, Morino is pioneering the concept of venture philanthropy to help
build capacity in our social welfare organizations.
The jury is still out on how the new Washington
entrepreneurial class will turn out. It is too soon to tell whether a vibrant
entrepreneurial culture is compatible with a caring society. Will they form
their own foundations and actively address societal problems, or will their
generosity be limited to attending trendy fund-raisers? Will they engage in
political action only around their narrow business interests, or will they lobby
for better education, health and other quality of life issues?
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