We should assume we're going to hell in a handbasket and do what matters, according to Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media.
If the assumption about a worst-case scenario is wrong, individuals and society will be the better for it, O'Reilly, a keynote speaker at Interop New York, told an audience Thursday.
O'Reilly's central message was a twist on Pascal's wager, which suggests that even though God's existence can't be proven, a person should "wager" that God exists, because living as though God is real can only improve the quality of one's life.
The open source activist said that issues like global warming can be dealt with the same way. If we act and invest money, invent new technologies, and reduce our reliance on gas, we are better off, regardless of whether global warming is a faulty theory or a reality.
O'Reilly suggested that technology innovators address the most important issues of the day and ask themselves, "How can I make a difference?"
"It's not just about figuring out how to dip into the great money river of venture capital," he said. "If it's a 'me-too idea,' it's probably not going to get funded. If it's been funded, it's probably not going to get a second round."
Instead, people should be generating ideas that they have faith in and ones that tackle pressing problems, O'Reilly explained.
"We are all going to be defeated in this life," he said. "Let's fight the things that make us stronger, the things that make us better."
Tackling those problems can lead to profit, O'Reilly said. He cited World War II's victory gardens and the Berlin Airlift and said great challenges bring great opportunities.
When the Soviet Union blocked access to Berlin, U.S. and British planes flew more than 277,000 flights in about one year, at times landing a plane every minute for 24 hours a day. People developed techniques for air traffic control and their efforts led to the concept of cargo planes, used by Boeing today, O'Reilly said.
O'Reilly pointed to a number of companies that seek profits from traditionally nonprofit efforts, as well as those that use commercial profits to fund nonprofit groups. He also pointed out that many of the most successful companies today are led by visionaries who once bet against predictions of industry titans.
That includes Microsoft, which bucked IBM's claim that PCs were toys for the wealthy and demand would never exceed 240,000. It also includes Google, which ignored industry experts who said in 1998 that there was no money in search, he said.
O'Reilly suggested that, today, Web 2.0 means taking customer data systems and turning them into user systems, not just turning to the Internet.
Whatever a company does, the key to success is to "create more value than you capture," he said.
"Look at Wall Street in the last decade," he said. "We've had more and more of this attitude of 'let's take more out of this system than we put in.' Clearly these Wall Street firms captured a lot more value than they were creating, and chicken has come home to roost."