NEW YORK--Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly Media, is known as a futurist, but his keynote address on Thursday morning at the Web 2.0 Expo was heavy on the realism in the wake of sobering news from Wall Street.
"(These are) pretty depressing times in a lot of ways," O'Reilly said in an address that first had looked like it would simply be a starry-eyed discussion of enterprise opportunities for Web 2.0. "And you have to conclude, if you look at the focus of a lot of what you call 'Web 2.0,' the relentless focus on advertising-based consumer models, lightweight applications, we may be living in somewhat of a bubble, and I'm not talking about an investment bubble. (It's) a reality bubble."
Global warming. The U.S. losing its edge in science and technology. A growing income gap. "And what are the best and the brightest working on?" O'Reilly asked, displaying a slide of the popular Facebook application SuperPoke, which invites you to, among other things, "throw sheep" at your friends.
"Do you see a problem here?" he posed, showing another slide of the popular iPhone app "iBeer," which simulates chugging a pint. "You have to ask yourself, are we working on the right things?"
He brought up examples like Google.org, the Omidyar Network, and even small companies that have decided to take on social and political challenges rather than the trendy social-network craze of the week. "Business is the engine of innovation," O'Reilly said. "I really believe in markets, and I believe in the power we all have to build great companies that change things."
As for the financial-services industry, O'Reilly implied that in a big sense, firms had it coming. "If you look at what went wrong on Wall Street, this is an industry that, in its heart, parades a lot of value," he said. "Liquidity in markets is critical. But if you look at the last decade...these Wall Street firms captured a lot more value than they were creating."
There's an inherent irony in what O'Reilly said, given the fact that massive conferences like the Web 2.0 Expo are packed with the trendspeak and hype that birthed SuperPoke-like entertainment, and certainly aren't helping the environment by distributing tons of press kits and swag--not to mention flying in hundreds of attendees in a massive spurt of carbon emissions.
To be fair, O'Reilly Media has been printing fewer event programs and encouraging conference goers to recycle, and it has used carpeting made of post-consumer material.
There is clearly a lot that needs to change, and perhaps the tech industry trend of large-scale conferences is part of it. We'll see whether Silicon Valley's leaders and moguls are willing to do what they think is right, rather than what they think is profitable.
But O'Reilly encouraged the audience to start small, and he offered them their first challenge: register to vote.