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What the Great Gatsby has to do with startups

What the Great Gatsby has to do with startups.

The Great Gatsby is the "Great American Novel" not just because of its plucky heart but because its themes resonate through eras. The "new money" at the time were the financiers of old: the "West Egg" to the "old money" aristocracy of East Egg.

Decades later, most of the largest political donors in the world hail from "West Egg". A society really stands on the ideas left uncontested, and in the last few decades, the financial orthodoxy has lain claim to that most sacred space. Who can effectively question the rise of consumption-based economics, the virtue of markets, and the rule of law that underpins both?

The financial class rose from becoming intermediaries to owners of an astonishing amount of wealth in the span of a few generations. In between, they drove their foundational idea that money could cross all boundaries from the banks of Manhattan to the heart of the Soviet Union.

This has led to a consolidation of an elite comprised not of nationalities, but of skillsets. It has led to recession, disaster--and triumph. My father was born in 1959: he was named after Mao's "Great Leap Forward." The year he was born, our family barely had enough to eat.

The billions in Asia and beyond who can aspire to a life on equal footing owe part of that choice to a pragmatic embrace of the global financial class that moved capital to and fro.

Yet as money moved from border to border, something else moved too--the shadow that any light produces.

Good government increasingly became defined by financial metrics. As government officials and financiers danced together in a waltz of revolving careers and heightening ambitions, important things began to slip through the cracks.

GNP suddenly became GDP, a small technocratic change that disguised the large flow of income leaving developing nations for developed nations. Bank regulations were loosened because the market knew best. More importantly, what had at first been a set of loose ideas became the firm, unassailable cornerstone of modern progress, secured, sometimes, by war, and marked above all by the ailing planet we called home. Finance was finally in power, for better or for worse.

I don't know if history repeats itself: I haven't lived long enough to see it in action. But I do know that if there were to be a new tale weaved into this narrative of old money and new money, it would have to involve technologists.

The parallels are striking. Already, technology companies are going from intermediaries of wealth to large-scale owners of it. The more sophisticated operations have long commenced their dance with government. And, sooner or later, the points the technology community embrace seem likely to become the next unassailable cornerstone of progress.

If financiers believe money could cross all boundaries, technologists believe the same for people. Financiers search for ideas to embrace--technologists search for the people that will build those ideas into reality. This driving tenet will animate the 21st century and open borders for the people within them.

This "new money" class of technologists will bring their incredible victories with them. They will also bring unforeseen perils.

Category-defining technologies that empower people beyond reckoning can and have helped the blind to see, and the lame to walk. Billions of people could live healthier, more educated lives.

Yet the very definition of Silicon Valley merit, taken to its extreme, poses no alternative but to let artificial intelligence make the most significant choices of our age--and what will become of a generation whose every action and association will have been mapped since birth?

In the Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, the figurehead of East Egg "old money" says what is perhaps the most sobering line in the movie adaption of the novel to "new money" antihero Gatsby: "We were born different from you, it's in our blood, I suppose". Gatsby succumbed to that line--but the Great Gatsby was never really about him.

It was about rebels vs. the establishment they hoped to be, upstarts vs. incumbents, ambition vs. privilege. It was about the power of rebels with a cause, and the fragility of their dreams. The Great Gatsby was, in short, about human nature and its role in our collective history.

As we write our next chapter, that theme is as relevant to us now as it was in 1920.

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