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Crank turners

I had lunch yesterday with a friend who runs product at a giant consumer tech company. We talked a bit about my impressions of Silicon Valley and the temporariness of some of the startups we’ve both come across. His response was that the sole reason his company was successful early on was that they “had 10 really smart people in the same organization, working on the same problem, for 3-4 years.”

Imagine how difficult that would be now, with talent as fluid and competitive as it is in Silicon Valley. Many of those smart people are tempted to build an incremental feature on top of something another team spent years focused on. Sometimes that strategy works, and when it does, it reinforces the cycle that this is the best thing for smart people to do: build incrementally and move onto the next thing.

The American author David Foster Wallace critiqued this approach in the world of literature in a 2005 interview, when he called these people ”crank turners.” I think the analogy is somewhat apt to the startup world:

But when you talk about Nabokov and Coover, you’re talking about real geniuses, the writers who weathered real shock and invented this stuff in contemporary fiction. But after the pioneers always come the crank turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end. The crank-turners capitalize for a while on sheer fashion, and they get their plaudits and grants and buy their IRAs and retire to the Hamptons well out of range of the eventual blast radius.
There are some interesting parallels between postmodern crank-turners and what’s happened since post-structural theory took off here in the U.S., why there’s such a big backlash against post-structuralism going on now. It’s the crank-turners fault. I think the crank-turners replaced the critic as the real angel of death as far as literary movements are concerned, now. You get some bona fide artists who come along and really divide by zero and weather some serious shit-storms of shock and ridicule in order to promulgate some really important ideas. Once they triumph, though, and their ideas become legitimate and accepted, the crank-turners and wannabes come running to the machine, and out pour the gray pellets and now the whole thing’s become a hollow form, just another institution of fashion.
Take a look at some of the critical-theory Ph.D. dissertations being written now. They’re like de Man and Foucault in the mouth of a dull child. Academia and commercial culture have somehow become these gigantic mechanisms of commodification that drain the weight and color out of even the most radical new advances. It’s a surreal inversion of the death-by-neglect that used to kill off prescient art. Now prescient art suffers death-by acceptance.
We love things to death, now. Then we retire to the Hamptons.

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