If Paul Bowles had been born 70 years later, in 1980, not 1910, he would have been a startup founder and a social media genius.
Bowles was a Renaissance man in his own right. He was a composer, a world traveler, an American expat who moved in Gertrude Stein’s Parisian circles, a translator of Moroccan literature, and a prolific author. His novel The Sheltering Sky made it onto Time’s list of Top 100 English Novels, 1923 to 2005. I must confess a preference for Bowles’s travel essays. As Paul Theroux writes in the introduction to a recent collection of those essays, Bowles lead “a life of his choice. He never compromised…writing what he wished, he never did anything he did not want to do; he kept at it until he died.”
One of the worst essays in Travels: Collected Writings 1950-1993 is ”Windows On the Past,” a kind of dreamy thought piece in which Bowles luxuriates in the image of a young man who, on a late July day, “will step out of the glare of Seville’s Plaza de la Falange Española into the shade of the Calle Sierpes, walk along under the canvas tenting stretched high above the street, and turn into the Restaurant Los Corrales.” Bowles is writing about himself, quite transparently. His talent for capturing the essential sensory experience of a place and a time is lost in the future tense, which lends the essay a purposefully affected pretension. But Bowles needs the future tense to make his point, to transition into a bit of lofty and quotable philosophizing on global politics post-1950.
Bowles thinks that America is the 20th century’s trendsetter, a variety of moddish dilettante, not unlike Bowles himself. America—and perhaps, Bowles, too—looks forward while rubbernecking back at Europe for cultural guidance. The metaphor of the young man in the Restaurant Los Corrales, the expat searching for something like “culture,” explains Bowles’s vision of America: young, promising, technically educated but desiring of the intangible brush of European sophistication. Bowles explains that the young man’s—and America’s—obsession with technical detail, process, and method is inhibiting progress:
“I think it is the business of technique that stands in the way of our own culture’s complete and unimpeded flowering,” Bowles claims. “In the rush to learn how we have forgotten that first we must know what.”
Although there are many objects that I could pass through Bowles’s analysis—many examples of an overemphasis on technique, on the how instead of the what—this blog focuses on startup culture, social media, digital publishing, etc. And so, it’s natural to expect the following argument: contemporary startups overemphasize technique: depend on a how proposition, not a what proposition. That is to say, too many startups focus on the technical buildout of the product instead of macro-consumer trends; too many highlight the technical skills of their teams, not their capacity to generate original ideas; too many answer the question, “how will digital citizens do X (share photos, listen to music, communicate with their friends,” instead of, “what will digital citizens do?”
To paraphrase Bowles, in the rush to control how people use technology, we have forgotten that we have the ability to change what people use technology for.
I think the most obvious evidence for this theory is the number of piggybacking and iterative innovations launched into consumer space: Groupon for soccer moms, Facebook for pets, Twitter for offices; and “new email,” “new social media,” “new e-commerce.” The problem is that we need more inventions and less fine tuning; the new new media’s same as the old new media. Real success will be found in something really new, not a clever repackaging of technique intended for a quick exit.
Bowles wrote “Windows On the Past” in 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, when Western, Capitalist techno-cultural innovation met its antonym in Eastern, Communist strategy. Clearly, Bowles’s commentary on the how versus the what, on technique versus concept, references the innovation races of Cold War geopolitics. In the post-tech bubble, post-2008 American economy, politicians and investors deploy a similar rhetoric to distinguish America from both the Eurozone and some nebulous Eastern axis. If that rhetoric interrupts transnational economic cooperation and global technological cooperation, it at least can push entrepreneurs to compete against phantoms, driving innovation into productive channels.