Can you have a tech bubble without a unifying theme?

Peter Thiel is quoted this morning in a New York Times blog as saying that he doesn’t think we are in a tech bubble:

The first component of a bubble — something a lot of people believe and can act on — doesn’t even exist,” Mr. Thiel said. “Most of these companies are privately held. There is no way for the public to become involved.

Thiel’s main point is that there aren’t many internet companies for the public to invest in, but to me the first part of his sentence is more interesting.  Unlike the internet bubble of the late 1990s there isn’t a central theme that a lot of people can believe in.

For me, (and this heralds from the thinking of Carlotta Perez) a key characteristic of a bubble is a belief that something is changing the world – last time round it was the internet, before that it has been railways, coal and steel, and mass production.  Sitting here in 2011 the closest thing we’ve got is the idea that mobile will be transformative, but that is incremental rather revolutionary.

Perez believes that we had a bubble around ten years ago, and now we are in a period where the technology promised during that bubble has become real and is permeating through society and delivering sustained improvements in productivity.  To put it another way in the 1990s the belief in the transformative power of the internet got ahead of reality, but there is no equivalent divergence today.

This makes sense to me given the real benefits and profits being delivered by many internet companies today and the fact that the overall economy and stock markets are roughly flat over the last twelve months.

The smart advice being dished out to entrepreneurs by many seasoned observers is to ignore all talk of bubbles and concentrate on building sustainable businesses.  If Perez is right in thinking that internet technologies are permeating through society and delivering real productivity benefits (and it is pretty obvious to me that she is right) then there should be lots of opportunities to create sustainable businesses that deliver those benefits.

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