Watching the future unfold at pedestrian pace in Silicon Valley
I WISH THERE was an anniversary with a good round figure that I could pinpoint, but my columns here at The Irish Times started somewhat haphazardly in 2001, developing a weekly frequency a few years later. They will, however, definitely end this week.
A decade and some is a long time to steer a column, especially remotely from another country, and so I have at long last decided to draw matters to a close.
When I first started writing, I was a new visitor to Silicon Valley, seeing it all (I hoped) with a fresh pair of eyes. A fresh pair of shoes, too: for many years, I wrote from deep within the valley’s suburbs without the benefit of a US driving licence.
The challenge of negotiating a county thick with start-ups but thin on public transport made for some interesting challenges. Young executives would show me out of their offices only to become visibly confused by my apparently invisible means of transport. When I started off to the streets, I think some may have thought I was hitchhiking back to Ireland to file my report.
Ten years on, the future catches up with you. Walking around the valley became easier when hand-held GPS devices became affordable, more easy to co-ordinate when local transport authorities put their timetables online, and simple when mobile phones got smart enough to plan and map one’s routes.
As a non-driver and gadget hound in a car and technology paradise, I grabbed hold of each of these advances eagerly, and I know I wasn’t the only one here.
The trick is to spot the advances that have a chance of spreading to the rest of the world.
The entrepreneur Brad Templeton, one of the smartest predictors of the future I know, began describing to me a future of self-driving cars at a Silicon Valley event in about 2004. At that time he had no investment in that future, nor did he have a timetable for its arrival. He simply pointed out the evidence that computers would be smart enough to pull off such a trick relatively soon and listed the advantages that would accrue.
I listened sceptically – robot cars indeed! – and then watched as Google began driving its robotic cars, first around its neighbourhood and then more widely across the country.
This month, California prepared to pass a law legalising self-driving cars in the state. The cars get smarter, the obvious applications grow and Mr Templeton looks a prophet once more.
In this column, I’ve written about companies and technologies that triumphed, such as BitTorrent and Firefox, Wikipedia and Flickr, Facebook and the iPhone; and some that stumbled, such as the One Laptop per Child initiative and the social network Diaspora. There are some technologies whose success is still unclear, with names such as Bitcoin and mesh networks.