Last fall, over three hundred Stanford students squeezed themselves into Skilling Auditorium for the first session of Civil & Environmental Engineering 252: Web3 Entrepreneurship. The scarcity of seats did not curb their hopes and ambitions; many leaned against walls and sat cross-legged in the aisles, craning their necks to see slides explaining an entrepreneur’s blockchain-powered brainchild. Nine weeks later, those same students watched in awe as ChatGPT smashed the record for the fastest growing consumer application in history. A shiny new idol for startup-minded students had risen.
Like a light switch, winter enrollment for Web3 Entrepreneurship plummeted to only ninety people, and the class was then canceled in the spring. The once voguish course will not be offered this year in any quarter.
This is indicative of a larger problem: too many Stanford students pursue a vision of the future dictated by the agendas of others, rather than daring to envision their own fantastic future and will it into existence.
The arrival of ChatGPT changed the interests of Stanford students and led to a mass migration from blockchain to generative artificial intelligence seen elsewhere in the Computer Science department. Fall enrollment in “Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain Technologies” fell from over three hundred students in 2022 to just above ninety in 2023, a 70% drop. Meanwhile, current “Deep Generative Models” enrollment stands at 324 students, nearly double the previous class size of 174.
This reactive migration is not an isolated example or even a recent behavior. In January of 2015, 152 students enrolled in the newly created “Convolutional Neural Networks for Visual Recognition.” Two months later, Elon Musk announced that Tesla would release self-driving software to their fleet of cars. Intel followed suit by allocating 250 million dollars for investment in self-driving tech, GM acquired Cruise Automation for one billion dollars, and Uber rolled out autonomous Volvos in Pittsburgh. As the investments accumulated, enrollment in the class more than doubled each year. At its peak in the spring of 2017, more than 770 students enrolled, which would have been eleven percent of all Stanford undergrads at the time.
Companies participating in the technological trends create economic incentives that may be to blame for this technological trend hopping phenomenon. Those businesses that implement a trendy innovation can rapidly develop a competitive edge, or at least enhance their brands. Netflix, for instance, made headlines for offering a nine hundred thousand dollar salary to an AI-focused Product Manager. Generative AI job postings more broadly were up more than twenty percent back in May. When companies look to utilize a new technology, the value of expertise skyrockets and students shift to meet this demand. When money talks, Stanford listens.
Entrepreneurial students might also be influenced by investors, who are also susceptible to trends. From 2022 to 2023, crypto investment declined by nearly 70%, whereas generative AI investment increased by nearly 350%. For a young would-be founder scrounging for seed funding, it is helpful to follow the clear signals made by eager venture capitalists looking to follow technological breakthroughs.
Another possible cause is mimetic theory (pioneered by Stanford philosopher René Girard). As some students follow new trends to pursue salaries or investment, many more follow due to a natural inclination to imitate. Students may even be lured away from their own, organic interests in nonprofit work, military service, medicine, or research to follow their classmates into more glamorous careers. They are swept up in Stanford’s prolific startup scene, unknowingly looking to whatever is popular to decide their futures.
Regardless of the cause, the trend hopping that infects Stanford’s campus harms entrepreneurial students and real technological development. Many aspiring founders, struggling to identify a problem or conceive an innovation, find that they can fast track the entrepreneurial journey by hitching their wagons to a vogue technology. However, those who attempt to build companies based upon the newest trend end up worse off because they are using a fad as their foundation, rather than a true need or insight into a future that they need to create. As a result, they unwittingly fall for a common trap recognized, ironically, by start-up incubator Y Combinator: SISP, a “Solution In Search of a Problem.” They latch on to anything remotely related to the current trend in order to access venture capital dollars and the resulting admiration of their peers, instead of identifying a problem or opportunity first and a technological solution second.
This is not to say that no student finds success by following trends. They might enjoy high salaries, or even land a lucrative acquisition deal for their startup. However, if they are hopping on trends like so many do, then they are contributing to a broader problem of technological stagnation. In recent decades, new products, capabilities, or discoveries have kicked off new technological trends that attract investment and produce economic carrots for ambitious young go-getters. These hype cycles have converged to the point that the term ”tech” has come to refer exclusively to information technology. Instead of actively creating these unexpected breakthroughs across industries that enable a more fantastic future, Stanford students are sidetracked and seduced.
Stanford, and Silicon Valley as a whole, was once home to visionaries. The sort of people who were willing to fill a fraternity house basement with sand, and then produce a manmade island with the leftovers. The kind of people who were always willing to push back against the status quo. The type of people who foresaw a grand technological future, and made it a reality.
The reactive habit of bouncing between shiny new tech trends is a waste of our nation’s brightest young minds. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Towering genius disdains a beaten path.” We need to create the next ChatGPT, not merely build on it; shape technological trends, not lazily follow; pioneer new paths, not just tread the well-worn. As a university known primarily for disruption and innovation, its students must relearn to think for themselves.