The Rise of the Wants, Silicon Valley's Answer to Wall Street's Math Nerds

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Math nerds used to do math. Then, Wall Street started snapping them up to turn them into "quants," who combed market data looking for tradeable trends. Now, Silicon Valley is taking these same brains and applying their skills to consumer data on the Internet, argues Bloomberg BusinessWeek's Ashlee Vance in a probing feature this week. He's even got a name for these new people: Wants.

"At social networking companies, Wants may sit among the computer scientists and engineers, but theirs is the central mission: to poke around in data, hunt for trends, and figure out formulas that will put the right ad in front of the right person," Vance writes. "Wants gauge the personality types of customers, measure their desire for certain products, and discern what will motivate people to act on ads."

Vance's story has a second prong beyond coining her clever new term. He also argues that this technology bubble (if that's what it is) will be different from previous ones because what the Wants are doing isn't fundamentally valuable or extensible. The anti-Want in Vance's narrative is my college friend and Big Data aficionado Jeff Hammerbacher. "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," Hammerbacher told Vance. "That sucks."

He left Facebook several years ago and cofounded Cloudera, a firm that helps people analyze massive amounts of information across a wide variety of industries. It's an infrastructural company. It's clear to me that what Big Data guys do is important, but I think Vance undersells the Wants a little. Here's why.

Vance mentions the science and technology studies concept of the general-purpose technology, which we generally think of as the big stuff -- steam engines, turbines, Internet routers. But it's the consumer-applications that those things enabled which made at least the latter two so important.

Take the electric power plant. Without all the consumer-focused companies making electric toasters and radios and telephones and lightbulbs, there would not have been the demand for electricity that drove the scaling up and improvement of power plants. The consumer and infrastructural components of the electrical system formed a virtuous (or not so virtuous, as you may see it) cycle that drove up electricity usage and plant technology. Who is to say that the Wants and their consumer-focused employers aren't playing a similar role?

So, sure, it may be that the Wants themselves don't leave behind much technology to build on. Luckily, they may have a more important legacy: they'll have gotten the entire world hooked on the Internet.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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