Andreessen, O'Brien, & Smith for the Hour

One of my more disruptive habits is watching a lot of interviews, debates, and lectures online. Many's the time when work or bed was delayed because of some 8-part video on YouTube that grabbed me and refused to let go. In the past week, this habit led to the curious coincidence of seeing two Charlie Rose interviewees use economic logic to discuss something about their professions, which of course I got a kick out of. Marc Andreessen, who pioneered the web browser (and who has appeared on this blog before), spoons out his serving 39 minutes in.


ANDREESSEN: Silicon Graphics was a fantastically successful computer company in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that actually got put out of business by the PC. The engineers got freed up as a consequence of SGI being put out of business by the PC, went to work, and among other things are now at companies like Nvidia and ATI, that make these graphics chips and pose a significant challenge to Intel. Right? And so the cycle repeats.

The key thing happening there is innovation happened, right, and somebody -- in that case, right, somebody benefited, somebody got damaged. But the process of damaging right at that point, Silicon Graphics, was a tragedy as far as Silicon Graphics was concerned, but it freed up those brilliant engineers to go on and create the next generation of technology.


And it’s that level of sort of, you know, turnover and dynamism and spin-offs and start-ups and venture capital that keeps the whole thing going.

It'd be hard to get a better example of creative destruction than that.

In the second interview, Conan O'Brien claims we're in a "Golden Era of TV" (11'30")*.


ROSE: Why do you think that is?

O'BRIEN: I think--the competition...There's so much more television now, and I think to stand out, the writing had to get better.

And I think there's a freedom in television that a lot of people aren't finding in the movies. So, I'll watch a Lost episode--I don't know what's going to happen. I really don't know who's gonna to live, who's gonna die, I don't know what they're going to find. You watch an episode of 24, you watch an episode of House, and I think the overall quality of the ideas is a lot higher sometimes than what you see in the movies.

And I think it might be because there's more competition, and I think clearly increased competition has been good for late night shows as well. There are more late night shows and there's more comedy on television, and it's forcing all of us to work harder than we probably would have.  If I had a monopoly on late night shows, I don't know that I'd be working as hard as I do.

Straightforward stuff straight from Smith, but wait, there's more (16'25")!

ROSE: Do Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert represent anything new? A trend, or a direction?

O'BRIEN:...[I]t's the degree to which you can specialize now, do you know what I mean? I think in a three network world, it was hard to specialize to that degree. Now, these different shows--you know, Jon's done it brilliantly and Stephen Colbert has done it brilliantly--they can specialize. There used to be shows that could comment on the news but then had to do other things as well. You really feel like well now they have the freedom to just take, in a half-hour, take that to a further degree than it's been taken before.

Adam Smith claimed the division of labor as one of the primary sources of the wealth of nations. If I'm better at milling wood and you're better at milking cows, we will be more productive by specializing in what we're good at and trading for the rest rather than aiming for self-sufficiency.  This wealth-creating division of labor is, however, "limited by the extent of the market." If you and I are the only people on earth, in other words, it's unlikely I'll be earning my keep as an art critic.  Conversely, a large market allows for large degrees of specialization, just as hundreds of cable channels allow for more specific shows.

Conan later wonders whether TV will continue such that "everyone is working a certain very specific niche." It's not clear how he feels about that proposition, but Adam Smith did fret about a worker so specialized he only performed "a few simple operations" for his job. This man, says Smith, "has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention" and "naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become."


*I couldn't agree more. Movies rarely strike my fancy these days, but there are many TV shows I enjoy tremendously.