What's happened to the idea of "changing the world"?

I ask because it strikes me that the kinds of companies being created in this tech boom seem awfully short on ambition compared to booms past.

The new crop is generally trying to solve the problems of the young hip urbanite -- how to get a ride, find a place to live, rent out a couch, track your workout, have someone do your errands, send presents to friends via social media or connect with neighbors whom you never see.

Let's face it; these are First World problems. As Peter Thiel, the investor and entrepreneur, said in his Founders Fund manifesto, "We wanted flying cars and instead we got 140 characters."

In many ways, the ideas are a product of their geography. The expansion of Silicon Valley's borders to San Francisco has, I think, changed the types of startups being created.

I like Getaround and other car-sharing services for renting a car someone else isn't using. If Everyme will combine all my social networks into a single address book, why shouldn't I let it? If Nextdoor puts me in touch with my neighbors, that beats spending a rainy Saturday going door to door to talk about an irritating barking dog.

I realize these respond to the fact that urban living is isolating even amid the crowd.

But how big are these problems? How important, for example, is it to know what's happening right now in your city? I'm not sure, but a new startup called Now detects events that are trending from people uploading photos.


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Many of the latest startups promise services I didn't know I needed. With Pair, I can create a private social network with my husband. (Another thing to manage!) With Kiip, I can play games and earn rewards and discounts for products.

San Francisco "is driven by startups that are solving problems within the urban context," said Dan Parham, a co-founder of Neighborland, which creates social networks for neighborhoods and is itself based in San Francisco.

So what happen to the old dream of changing the world, or, in the wonderful words of Steve Jobs, "to put a dent in the universe." Maybe these have become quaint notions.

Sure, the "change the world" mantra is self-aggrandizing. And exhausting. Except for super-humans like the Apple (AAPL) co-founder, who can dent the universe and make sure there is milk in the fridge? And by the way, Get It Now will drop off the milk for you.

But I miss the big dreamers with their impossible lofty missions.

I think back to the early 1990s when ex-Apple alumni started a company called General Magic. It was in Sunnyvale, not known then for its hipness. At the expense of their health and personal lives, General Magic employees worked feverishly to produce the Magic Cap, a device that no one had ever seen before. It was an information device that was a precursor to the Palm Pilot and ultimately the iPhone. The company went public and when the product shipped, consumers didn't know what to make of it.

A failure, right? No. They tried to make something new, a thing that had never been seen before. It was a great idea at the wrong time and a testament to the brilliant dreamers who worked hard to make it happen.

In many ways, the evolution of startup ideas as they move to the city makes sense, said AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at UC Berkeley.

"People who start companies in San Francisco are a younger generation," she said. "They are not all engineers. It is not all monolithic as it was. It is more software and design-oriented. Some are solving the problems they know. You can't solve the problems you don't know."

And some of the entrepreneurs argue that what seems like First World problems now will soon become Third World problems. As billions of people move to cities in coming decades, there will be major challenges over sustainability and energy, transportation, housing and so on, many of the issue we grapple with now, but on a larger scale.

So perhaps, figuring out how to connect with strangers to share a car might just become an idea that changes the world.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.