Sunday, June 2, 2013

Silicon Valley, a Wake-Up Call

There are times in life when you are humbled in a way that goes to your core. Of course, we are all humbled each and every the perseverance of the disabled vet, by the smarts of the colleague 20 years your junior, by the grace of the special-needs adult smiling through his day. But sometimes you encounter humility that ends up actually making you sad.

This is what happened to me the day I read George Packer's piece, "Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogansand it's moneyto the realm of politics," in last week's New Yorker. Like Packer, I was raised in the Santa Clara Valley that everyone in the world now calls "Silicon Valley." Packer was a senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto in 1978, the year my wife Carol was a freshman there. I graduated the previous year, 1977, from Branham High School in San Jose. Very much unlike Packer, however, I did not follow the Woodward/Bernstein inspiration that led me to complete my journalism degree in 1983. Instead I was swept up by tech, and have now had a long and lucrative Silicon Valley career. I'm certainly no Marc Andreessen or Sergei Brin, but I am comfortably settled into an obscenely overvalued rancher in Los Altos, holding out reasonable hopes for an earlier than usual retirement.

And this is why Packer's Silicon Valley piece was so humbling. From the vantage point of my tech career and my day-to-day life in the valley, I have observed the trends with some uneasiness: the rise of social networking companies that "make" nothing beyond user interfaces on which to display advertising, the insulation of workers in citadels with free gourmet food, dry-cleaning pick-up, and medical/dental centers, the increasing divide between the super rich and the unrich best embodied by urban gentrifications that have literally pushed the disenfranchised further and further out to the edges. I have observed these changes, scratched my head over them and even seethed with envy at times, but I had never seen them as a contiguous whole, as a real social transformation taking place at an alarming rate in the place where I was born and raised, until I read Packer's piece.

And that was just the setup.

Packer goes on to expose twenty- and thirtysomething millionaires and billionaires who have artfully convinced themselves that they are “changing the world” when in fact they have no clue what “the world” is. As Packer observes:
It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.
More alarming (or perhaps more amusing), Packer tells us how this "change the world" self image has led these captains of tech to look for political applications for their millions. And what happens when the cash-rich and clueless get involved in politics? Well, I’ll direct you first to Packer’s piece—it’s a must-read in my opinion—but I’ll also embellish with my own observations: 

The only “world-changing” I expect from this latest crop of IPO millionaires might be:
  1. A few new laws and regulations favored by the tech industry, such as an increased allotment of the H1B visas they use to displace uppity American engineers in favor of the half-the-cost variety available from various parts of Asia, or reductions in corporate tax rates because, hey, how can they possibly be expected to keep their intellectual property, profits, and jobs in the US with these exorbitant tax rates. (This despite the fact that they themselves live in the US, walk the safe streets of the US, eat the safe, thoroughly inspected foods of the US, educate their kids in the US, etc., etc.)
  2. Perhaps a few more “world-changing” developments like the candy shop, arcade, and soon-to-open hobby shop that now grace the streets of Downtown Los Altos, all brought to us by local Google executives whose children are apparently bored by the currently available attractions in the historically geriatric village. (Yes, the young techistocracy are procreating, and apparently their kids need something to do with themselves beyond the walls, vineyards, swimming pools, and tennis courts of the Tuscan villas of Los Altos Hills.)
Other than that, I don’t expect much. But hey, surprise me.