Silicon Valley insiders call it the O’Reilly Radar: Tim O’Reilly’s uncanny ability to spot a technology revolution before it happens. But lately the entrepreneur, investor and book publisher has been busier trying to incite the next one.
He is urging young entrepreneurs and engineers to stop making some of the sillier software that lets Facebook users throw virtual sheep at their friends or download virtual beer on iPhones, and instead start making a real difference in the world.
He says it’s not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do -- especially as the credit crunch spreads to Silicon Valley, venture financing becomes scarce and start-ups have to retrench.
When this grizzled, 54-year-old tech-industry veteran talks, Silicon Valley tends to listen, if only to argue with him.
After all, this is the guy who understood the power and significance of the Internet before most people were aware it existed. In 1992, he published “The Whole Internet User’s Guide & Catalog,” the first popular book about the medium, which was later selected by the New York Public Library as one of the most significant books of the 20th century.
He now runs O’Reilly Media, an influential book publishing empire in Sebastopol, Calif., which has snagged a significant share of the computer book market with series such as “The Missing Manual” and “Hacks.”
Early this decade, O’Reilly helped coin the term “Web 2.0" to refer to the current phase of the Internet, which relies on collective intelligence and action from the bottom up (think social networks such as Facebook and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr).
He is perhaps best known for putting on packed conferences headlined by some of the tech industry’s brightest. Now he is using those conferences as a bully pulpit.
The theme of his Web 2.0 conference here next month is “Web meets world.” It will showcase activists such as former Vice President Al Gore, cyclist-philanthropist Lance Armstrong and Larry Brilliant, who, as head of Google.org, has reinvented philanthropy by setting up a foundation without tax-exempt status to invest in for-profit and nonprofit efforts.
O’Reilly argues that Silicon Valley has strayed from the passion and idealism that fuel innovation to instead follow what he calls the “mad pursuit of the buck with stupider and stupider ideas.”
Flush with money and opportunity following the post-dot-com resurgence, he says, some entrepreneurs have cocooned in a “reality bubble,” insulated from poverty, disease, global warming and other problems that are gripping the planet. He argues that they should follow the model of some of the world’s most successful technology companies, including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which sprang from their founders’ efforts to “work on stuff that matters.”
Not everyone is convinced that business is the right vehicle to tackle social or environmental ills. But Jim Schorr, who lectures on social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says he can’t imagine “a higher calling for the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.”
“The opportunity to focus technology and tech entrepreneurs on the unaddressed, underserved segments of society is enormous,” Schorr said. “Developing and extending technologies with limited profit potential, using market-driven approaches, can deliver both social and financial impact and sustainability.”
Though the Web 2.0 generation has a reputation for indulgence and narcissism, O’Reilly can point to a number of ventures using Silicon Valley ingenuity to deliver on Schorr’s ideal.
The Omidyar Network, created by EBay Inc. founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, makes grants to and investments in worthy causes. Benentech.org, started by former rocket scientist Jim Fruchterman, creates software for human rights activists, environmentalists and people with disabilities.
The Wildlife Conservation Network -- started by software engineer Charles Knowles, conservationist John Lukas and Akiko Yamazaki, wife of Yahoo Chief Executive Jerry Yang -- uses technology and a venture capital model to help save endangered species.
A growing number of businesses are turning to social networking tools to encourage people to get more politically active and drum up donations for charities. Causes, started by Sean Parker and Joe Green, created the popular Causes application on Facebook and MySpace. Its 14.5 million users have created 110,000 campaigns.
O’Reilly also singles out two other Web 2.0 stars for providing social benefit. Twitter, an instant digital communications service, has helped coordinate disaster response. YouTube, the video sharing website now owned by Google, has helped activists fight repressive regimes in other countries.
“Simply providing technology that can be used for positive causes can have an enormous impact,” he said.
So how has O’Reilly’s message gone over with the Web 2.0 crowd?
“I’ve had a whole bunch of people tell me they were super-inspired,” O’Reilly said. “I’ve had a few people act like I am raining on their parade.”
Michael Arrington, founder of the influential technology blog TechCrunch, says he appreciates the effort to get entrepreneurs and engineers to consider doing more, such as volunteering in schools to teach kids how to program computers. But he says O’Reilly’s lament trivializes the good work done by Silicon Valley.
“It’s good to be aware that there are big problems out there that could be very profitable for companies to solve,” Arrington said. “That doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs who don’t decide to tackle those problems aren’t valuable to society.”
O’Reilly says he respects those contributions -- and makes a nice living showcasing them in his books and conferences. But, he says, “we have a tech generation that thinks that’s all there is.”
“The real Web 2.0, the web of collective intelligence applications, is going to be stronger as a result of any downturn,” he said. “Heck, figuring out more transparent financial markets alone will be a hotbed of opportunity.”