Sunday, April 15, 2012

Moses, Joshua, and Instagram

In one the first speeches he made after he declared his candidacy for the U.S. Presidency in March 2007, then Senator Barack Obama -- addressing a congregation in Selma, Alabama -- summoned the post-Civil Rights generation to take up the challenges still facing black America with the same courage as the Civil Rights giants who had gone before them.

The giants were the Moses Generation; their immediate successors were the Joshua Generation. And just as Joshua, not Moses, led the Jews into the Promised Land, so too the work of Dr. King and his brethren did not complete the Dream; those challenges were left to their successors, to Senator Obama and his brethren of the Joshua Generation.

Unfortunately, the events of the last five years, especially the horrendous loss of wealth and jobs and other economic setbacks imposed on Black America by the Great Recession and the impending decimation of Medicare and other components of the Federal safety net make it plain that Senator Obama was an optimist. We may need two or three Joshua Generations to achieve the Dream ... especially if Black Americans don't seize the extraordinary financial opportunities that have been generated by the explosive growth of the Internet and its associated technologies, technologies that are now the most powerful drivers of the global economic system and will become even more powerful during the foreseeable future.

Joshua's Opportunities
In his speech, the young Senator expressed concern that the Joshua Generation "thinks that the height of  ambition is to make as much money as you can" ... whereas the older I get, the more concerned I become that Black America's Joshua Generations are not making as much money as they could or, more importantly, as much as they need to make. Money certainly isn't everything, but it's what you you need to pay your brother's mortgage when he loses his job in a Great Recession. It's what you need to pay for higher education for your son or daughter or nephew or niece when the state university raises its tuition, but their Pell grants and other financial aid get cut ... again. And it's what you need to pay for your grandmother's health care services when the Federal programs that provided those benefits are reduced or eliminated. And it's what we all need to elect the kinds of leaders who will be truly responsive to the broader needs of America's black communities.

Today's America is a land of increasing inequality, where those who have money have the best chances to live comfortable, satisfying lives ... as will their families and their friends ... but if you don't have it, aren't related to it, or don't have friends who have it, you won't live comfortably and life's satisfactions will be so much harder to come by. But now more than ever before, this America is also a land where the entrepreneur is king. Indeed, we are living in a Golden Age of Entrepreneurship. And the biggest financial rewards have gone to the high-tech entrepreneurs of the Internet. Never before have so many entrepreneurs made so many billions of dollars so quickly.

Last week's purchase of Instagram by Facebook is a case in point. The press gave extensive coverage to this purchase, but an article in the NY Times underscored the facets I want to emphasize, "Facebook to Buy Photo-Sharing Service Instagram for $1 Billion" (New York Times, 4/13/2012):
  • "Instagram, an Internet start-up in San Francisco, has no revenue and about a dozen employees."
  • "Instagram is essentially a social network built around photography, offering mobile apps that let people add quirky effects to their smartphone snapshots and share them with friends."
  • "For Instagram’s founders, two Stanford graduates in their 20s who are now worth in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, it has been a productive couple of years."
  • "Mr. Systrom [one of the founders of Instagram] was a sophomore at Stanford in 2004 when he developed a service called Photobox that let people send large photo files to each other. The service caught the eye of Mr. Zuckerberg [Facebook's CEO], who offered him a job. But Mr. Systrom decided to finish his studies."
Please take special note about the last point. Mr. Systrom conceived the idea when he was a sophomore. It's a simple idea. It runs on smartphones, so it's a small program that didn't take long to write or debug. No one has accused Mr. Systrom of breaking new ground in computer science. So how hard could it be to produce an app like Instagram? The answer is obvious ==> not very.

No Black Instragrams
To date, there have been no boy billionaires and no boy multimillionaires who were black. Is it possible that Caucasians and Asians have won all of the prizes because of their genetic superiority? Of course not. Decades of research have thoroughly discredited the self-serving myths about the innate superiority of any ethnic groupings ... so it must be racism, right? ...

... Yeah ...  Residual racism in our society explains every gross disparity now and forevermore. Isn't that what we've been taught and have been teaching each other ever since the monumental legislative victories of our Moses Generation made racism illegal? Unfortunately, this time the only explanation that's supported by the facts on the ground is that Caucasians and Asians have been the only winners because blacks and other minorities haven't been players on the Internet. This is the first Big Game where the costs of entry are so low that just about anyone can afford to play. The computers are cheap, the software development tools are free, and the knowledge of how to use the computers and software tools can be acquired from free tutorials that have popped up all over the Web.

We Can't Win If We Don't Play
I suggest that the real reason why black Americans haven't been players -- correction: have been grossly underrepresented among the players -- is because too many of us are convinced that we don't have a chance to win. Programming computers is hard, right? You have to have a PhD from one of the best universities on the planet to be able to create a zillion dollar game for an XBox or a viral app for a tablet or a smartphone, right? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. So I also suggest that it's time for our well-intended, but grossly misinformed "leaders" who have been perpetuating these urban myths to shut up.

What it takes nowadays to become winning participants in the Internet Revolution is a modicum of talent, training, and experience coupled with gigantic chunks of courage, the courage to become a successful entrepreneur, the same courage that propelled the Moses Generation to their historic  legislative victories.  Dr. King and his brethren were social and legislative entrepreneurs because generating sufficient pressure to change the laws that justified America's oppressive apartheid created the greatest opportunities for the advancement of America's black communities back then. The Talented Tenth of the Joshua Generations will need the courage to become high-tech entrepreneurs because that's where the greatest opportunities for advancement of America's black communities are to be found today.

Having said my piece, I can already hear the murmurings of prominent black nay-sayers, humming their all-too-familiar blues about how it can't be done. They're always out there. And the bigger the goals we set for ourselves, the louder they sing their same old discouraging chorus, "White America won't let a black person enjoy that kind of success ... not now ... perhaps not ever."  Dr. King addressed his brilliant "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to nay-sayers who were absolutely certain of their "wisdom" that he was trying to do what couldn't be done ... but he did it!!! ... :-)

It takes courage to be an entrepreneur, and given the persistence of powerful racist forces in American society it takes even more courage to become any kind of black entrepreneur. So I agree with Senator Obama, who silenced the nay-sayers for at least a few moments in January 2009 when he swore the oath that made him President Obama ==> it takes courage to be a Joshua.

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