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Narrative as Destiny: Steering Markets and Innovation to Serve Society

Tim O’Reilly, founder and publisher of O’Reilly Media, technology thought leader, and investor known to many as the “conscience of Silicon Valley,” brings a lens of storyteller to explore the role of technology and economics in today’s marketplace. In his many-worlds approach to the innovation multiverse, it is not simply technology that determines our future; the stories we tell about those developments also shape our destiny. Discussing his new book, WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up To Us, and asking the essential question, “Who gets what and why?” O’Reilly looks at such fundamental issues as whether our basic model of growth in the old capitalist economy is the best one for society, and what the changing nature of tech platforms could mean for consumers and the economy if we had more wisdom to steer it. 

In what he dubs our “Skynet moment,” O’Reilly points to former General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s decision to shift the company from a “stakeholder” model to a “shareholder model” as a precursor to the financialization of our economy. This shareholder-centric model is positioned to take over the tech world as well, despite the fact that much of it is built on insights and developments that were open source, and that the World Wide Web itself is based on technology that was offered freely by its inventor, Tim Berners Lee. As major platforms such as Google transform themselves from search engines into content providers and more, distributional questions become central to the structure of these companies. What is it that we as a society believe the role of these companies should be, and what role should personal gain play in an industry that has been built in no small part on a culture of open collaboration?

O’Reilly uses his perch as a longtime observer on the front lines of the ever-changing world of Silicon Valley technology to explain what these platforms can teach us about the relationship between technology and the economy, and in turn, the lessons we must bring from economics to shaping the world of technology so that we do not lose sight of the critical question of what it takes to be a good corporate citizen. While it often seems like technology companies are reinventing economics from the ground up, there are the insights we can glean from history to guide the development of technology, both from within the New Economy and from the more traditional economic models without.

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