Network: The secret of Silicon Valley? We all have an axe to grind

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The Independent Culture
I'M SITTING in the Silicon Valley morning-commute traffic on Sand Hill Road, thinking about the Internet and life. My morning paper had seen fit to headline a story "Internet: dream or nightmare?", and started my internal wheels turning.

Fitting, I guess. Sand Hill Road is the Wall Street of Silicon Valley - the venture capitalists who've funded phenomena like Netscape and Yahoo have their offices on Sand Hill Road.

Sand Hill Road is so famous locally that most of the street signs have been stolen - hanging, no doubt, in college dormitories and maybe in a few venture capitalists' offices. I wouldn't mind except I live a street over from Sand Hill, and it's hard to give visitors directions when street signs go missing.

The map on my web-server resorts to descriptive phrases to identify a couple of key intersections. And, no, I'm not showing off here - everyone in this town keeps a map to their house or office on their web-server. Most of the Silicon Suburbs were laid out in the Fifties and Sixties, when cutesy-curvy was in. If you want to get your Concept and your Team in front of potential investors at a reception, or barbecue, or over a few beers, they'd better be able to find your house.

Anyway, back to the traffic jam and my wandering mind. Stuck amidst the crawling line of BMWs and Jags, it's hard not to notice the great wealth that's sprung up hereabouts. Not so long ago, Silicon Valley was a patch of open fields, orange groves and modest weekend bungalows for families who lived in San Francisco.

Now the Silicon Titans, riding rocketing Internet startups, have used their vested stock options to drive housing prices into Neptunian orbits, and that's for the fixer-uppers. Pretty much every buildable inch of my town has a house, a big house, on it. Even small lots have big houses on them. With land scarcer than money, the current fashion is to buy older big houses, knock them down and build even bigger houses.

One of my neighbours, Mort Grosser, has watched a lot of these changes. Mort is a PhD from MIT who keeps himself busy discovering theories about orbital perturbations when he isn't advising venture capitalists, large corporations and foreign governments on the particular brand of magic practiced in these parts. He also writes books, including novels, but that's another story.

Mort says Silicon Valley comprises 9,500 square kilometres and has 3.5 million souls, respectively comprising 2 per cent of the land area and 8 per cent of the population of California. Yet it generates 42 per cent of the state's revenues. He also told me that California has the seventh- largest economy on the planet.

So what, I have to wonder, do the folks here know that escapes others, including other Californians, including everyone down south in Los Angeles? Are people up here a lot smarter? Greedier? Something in the water we drink?

Well, having lived in LA, I can say that there are smart people there - people who make lots of money just by "doing lunch". And there are greedy people, too (see previous sentence). And Southern California water has everything imaginable floating around in it. Even the air in LA has stuff floating around in it.

One clue came to me while reading a book called The Axemaker's Gift by James Burke and Robert Ornstein. They trace modern technology back to the first toolmakers, their eponymous axemaker. Burke and Ornstein contend that the axemakers started a process of the serial collection and handing down of knowledge which, acting in concert with selection, has quite literally changed the world.

It takes millennia for selection to make relatively small changes in a given animal - a millennium sees the genome change by only a few bits in a trillion, according to Stephen Hawking. But toolmakers can make tools that encode knowledge - carved staffs, or clay tablets, or papyrus scrolls, or books or web pages - and thus form a kind of external genome of information which gives each generation a leg up on the last.

The process forms a feedback loop that gets faster as time passes and the knowledge-base grows. The more you learn and understand, the easier it is to discover new things and extend the knowledge-base even further.

And that's what I see my fellow Silicon Citizens doing every day - hewing and honing software the way our ancestors once hacked and polished stone. The computer-makers create a need for inventors whose routers form networks that drive a demand for more and better computers.

We all just happened to hit a time when, and a place where, the knowledge curve was beginning to bend sharply upward. Axemakers were better able to bag game, and carve the nourishing meat from the bones, so they did better than their tool-less peers.

Likewise, we stoop-shouldered nerds, peering from behind thick lenses, better comprehend the complexities of building the plumbing upon which the Information Age will depend, and so are doing better than some of our peers.

"First we shape our tools, thereafter they shape us," said Marshall McLuhan. Right now, I'd just like to shape a path around this traffic.