The secret of SiliconValley? We all have an axe to grind

What, I have towonder, do the folks here know that escapes others?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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

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

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

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

The map on my web-server resorts to descriptivephrases to identify a couple of key intersections. And, no, I'mnot showing off here - everyone in this town keeps a map to their house oroffice on their web-server. Most of the Silicon Suburbs were laid out inthe Fifties and Sixties, when cutesy-curvy was in. If you want to getyour Concept and your Team in front of potential investors at a reception, orbarbecue, or over a few beers, they'd better be able to find yourhouse.

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

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

One of myneighbours, Mort Grosser, has watched a lot of these changes. Mort isa PhD from MIT who keeps himself busy discovering theories about orbitalperturbations when he isn't advising venture capitalists, largecorporations and foreign governments on the particular brand of magic practicedin these parts. He also writes books, including novels, butthat's another story.

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

So what,I have to wonder, do the folks here know that escapes others, includingother Californians, including everyone down south in Los Angeles? Arepeople up here a lot smarter? Greedier? Something in the water wedrink?

Well, having lived in LA, I can say that there are smartpeople there - people who make lots of money just by "doinglunch". And there are greedy people, too (see previoussentence). And Southern California water has everything imaginablefloating around in it. Even the air in LA has stuff floating around init.

One clue came to me while reading a book called The Axemaker's Giftby James Burke and Robert Ornstein. They trace modern technology back to thefirst toolmakers, their eponymous axemaker. Burke and Ornstein contendthat the axemakers started a process of the serial collection and handing down ofknowledge which, acting in concert with selection, has quite literallychanged the world.

It takes millennia for selection to make relativelysmall changes in a given animal - a millennium sees the genome change by onlya few bits in a trillion, according to Stephen Hawking. But toolmakerscan make tools that encode knowledge - carved staffs, or claytablets, or papyrus scrolls, or books or web pages - and thus form akind of external genome of information which gives each generation a leg up onthe last.

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

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

Weall just happened to hit a time when, and a place where, the knowledgecurve was beginning to bend sharply upward. Axemakers were better able to baggame, and carve the nourishing meat from the bones, so they did betterthan their tool-less peers.

Likewise, we stoop-shoulderednerds, peering from behind thick lenses, better comprehend thecomplexities of building the plumbing upon which the Information Age willdepend, and so are doing better than some of our peers.

"First weshape our tools, thereafter they shape us," said MarshallMcLuhan. Right now, I'd just like to shape a path around thistraffic.

cg@gulker.com

Comments