Bob Metcalfe and the "one pair of glasses" theory

Look, I love Bob Metcalfe. We used to hang out on his farm and smoke weed and talk about chicks. But when I saw this story on CNET about him today I nearly swooned. Money quote is right at the top: “Bob Metcalfe thinks we’ll solve global warming if we take our cue from the Internet.” At some show in Boston he “laid out his vision of the `EnerNet,’ the concept of applying the lessons of building the Internet to the energy business.”

Um, right. The way to solve global warming is to follow the example of the Internet. Just like Andy Grove says the way to fix the pharmaceutical industry is to follow the example of the chip industry. And Nicholas Negroponte thinks the way to solve poverty is to hand out laptops.

I call it the “one pair of glasses” theory. You see it all the time. People know one thing and they think that this one thing can be applied to every problem, because it’s the only way they know how to look at the world. They’ve got one pair of glasses.

Usually the results are just silly but this stuff can be dangerous in the hands of guys who’ve become fabulously rich with their one pair of glasses and now have too much free time on their hands. (eg, Metcalfe and Grove.) Experience has convinced them that their one pair of glasses is a super-duper magical pair that never fails. And now they’ve piled up enough money to make themselves into a huge pain in the ass.

With guys like Negroponte it’s just kind of sad and/or funny. Double-N hasn’t ever succeeded at much of anything but the one thing he knows (or thinks he knows) is computers — therefore, computers are the key to saving the world. And the key to educating children. Nobody outside the computer industry thinks that. Certainly no schoolteacher thinks that, but how would Negroponte know that since he’s never been a schoolteacher and doesn’t have a degree in education and I doubt very much he’s ever spent much time in a grade-school classroom?

I don’t think there’s a schoolteacher anywhere who believes the best way to improve education would be to give every student a laptop. (My sense is they’d like the money spent on bigger salaries for teachers.) But that’s Negroponte’s theory and he’s sticking to it. Ditto for his pal Walter Bender from OLPC. Walter has spent his entire adult life cooped up at MIT playing at being a “computer scientist,” so of course he thinks computers are the key to fixing every problem. He’s got one pair of glasses.

For what it’s worth on Metcalfe, okay, look, he invented Ethernet. And he invented Metcalfe’s law, which sounds cool even though turns out not to be true. (FYI, cool-sounding slogans and sound bites are Bob’s stock in trade. Check out the CNET article to see how he’s at it again, saying “greentech” is not a good phrase and we should instead refer to “blue tech” and “black tech.” It’s a trick he taught me a long time ago for making yourself seem like an expert on something even when you don’t know jack shit about it — you just challenge the terminology and invent a couple of clever terms and next thing you know people are calling you a visionary and an out-of-the-box thinker who’s looking at the problem from a fresh angle.)

But I digress. The point is, Ethernet is great stuff and was a big breakthrough — in 1974 — and we’re all grateful for it. But the fact that some guy invented some computer networking protocol thirty-four years ago doesn’t exactly make him an expert on anything else. In fact I’d say Bob has no more standing on global warming or climate science than he does on brain surgery or black holes or the mating habits of silkworms. Nevertheless he’ll go on making investments in greentech and giving speeches and mucking around and fucking things up for a while alongside Richard Branson and the rest of his dream team, which includes veterans of Google, Paypal, and Wikipedia, who will of course tell you that the way to solve global warming is to copy Google, Paypal and Wikipedia.

For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure Larry thinks the way to win the America’s Cup is to apply the lessons he learned at Oracle. And you know how well that’s worked out.