When did the Web stop creating value and start promoting pointless consumption? Some of my disenchantment stems from failing to be a loyal consumer, and some from growing up in a time when narcissism wasn’t celebrated—or the basis of a business model. Whatever the source of my initial suspicions, I’ve come to the conclusion that with few exceptions, the technology-media-industrial complex in the United States and the investment model supporting it are broken, and we’re running out of time to fix them.

As I look at most of the so-called “hot startups” that are endlessly hyped online, in the media, and at tech events, I can’t help but notice a few depressingly common characteristics.

Very few are tackling the big problems. How do I define “big?” How about climate change? Or Peak Oil? What about “Peak Water?” Peak Food? Peak Everything? The planet is poised to add another 3 billion people in the next forty years, all of whom will expect to live as well as Americans do now. How do we solve that problem, let alone make money from it?

 

Maybe our failure to come to grips with these inconvenient truths is a side effect of the so-called “lean startup” mentality, but I’d guess it has more to do with being “built to flip” and a lack of commitment from both entrepreneurs and investors. Ask execs at most startups for their five-year plan, and they’ll give you a blank look. Furthermore, their core value propositions do nothing to create significant numbers of jobs at home, improve America’s competitive position in the world, or substantially improve peoples’ lives. Their vision ends at the exit strategy.

The vast majority are clones. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Foursquare should be tinkled pink. (Then again, Foursquare is just an updated clone of its predecessor, Dodgeball. Even the name is derivative.) While chatting up these “clone” startups, if you ask them to differentiate their approach, you’ll be presented with a list of shallow and easily reproducible “features” as opposed to anything really innovative.  I actually think Foursquare could do “things that matter” in the areas like health/exercise, compared consumption behavior.  We’ll see what they do with it.

Most are built on an advertising model, whether directly (from an ad-supported revenue model), indirectly (Web or marketing analytics), or peripherally (content mills for sites making money through advertising). The current battle for the Web is framed as a conflict between advertising companies: Google vs. Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Foursquare. At stake is who will control the click-through, and each of these companies will stop at nothing in trying to discover more information about you to serve you the most perfect, most tailored ad—a zero-sum game, considering overall advertising spend is down nearly 25% from its high-water mark in 2007.

What is the value being delivered here? Better living through advertising—and ultimately, through consumption? Considering we live on a planet of diminishing resources and increasing population, the frenzy of capital allocation to derivative, ad-supported startups is anathema to me.

If this sounds like the rantings of a Luddite, I haven’t always felt this way. In the early days of the Web, the value came from increasing productivity. Information was just a click away, disconnected and segregated processes were consolidated and made whole, and the brick and mortar world moved online to a more efficient electronic platform. The primary resource conserved in those days was time, although who knew then we would fritter it away playing Farmville and Mafia Wars?

I’ve heard altogether too many founders, investors, analysts, pundits and soothsayers expound on the need for companies to create something of real value, to work toward sustainability, and to benefit society. And yet their individual focus, energies, and capital is poured into companies locked in the zero-sum game of consumption-based value creation. The returns have been great if you’re a VC or an investor, but it pains me to see the country’s (and the world’s) best and brightest working on such vacuous and superficial projects when there are so many more important areas where we could and should be applying our skills, our capital investment, and our collective energy.

The critical problems facing humanity can’t be solved by serving the perfect ad, but through a step change in the size and scale of technologies devoted to conserving the resources required for a sustainable and equitable global village. And by resources I mean energy, water, food, healthcare, education, and opportunity. Warning signs are everywhere—rising oil and commodity prices, falling water tables, rising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, a healthcare industry costing 20% of our GDP—and yet we’d rather see a (fictional) movie about the founding of Facebook than confront any of these head-on.

A step change is required to deal with this converging crisis. World changing founder Alex Steffen talks about the need for solutions with the appropriate “scope, scale and speed” to head off a potentially extinction-level calamity, or at the very least a collapse in our standard of living. We need a whole suite of disruptive technologies to avoid this fate. Instinctively, we already know that.

History teaches us that innovation is the bridge between each age of progress, from the Stone Age through our current oil-and-information one. The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, and the age of oil won’t end because we run out of oil. It’s high time we embrace the potential of connecting with the “Things” around us —a reference to the “Internet of Things” that will connect nearly everything – us, our systems, and the hidden processes that serve/control/augment our lives – to the physical world. Once we have data models for how the world works, we’ll have the power to conserve what needs conserving, and the only way to do that is to redirect the energies, talent, and capital of the Web toward reaching that goal.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how we might do that, and thus replace the consumption-driven Web with a sustainability-driven one.