Watching the future unfold at pedestrian pace in Silicon Valley
I always tried, however, to pick winners. It’s easy in a place such as Silicon Valley, where the only thing that’s underhyped is the level of hype itself, to pick on the weak runts, the deluded braggarts who are deliciously oblivious to their inevitable doom. It makes for a good story to point out their flaws.
Ten years ago it was also, in the US at least, a desperately underprovided journalistic duty. The American media is never great at kicking the tyres of a new trend; in the excitement of our own doomed tech booms, the rest of the English-speaking world got a little too good at imitating their uncriticial optimism.
But really, in places such as Hollywood and Silicon Valley (two creative regions that cannot bear to be compared with each other), it’s not hard to spot the hopeful failures. While it looks like glitter from far away, close up the valley looks more like a constellation of doomed enterprises studded with a few successes. In the end you concentrate on predicting the winners, not because you want to erase the existence of the losers but because predicting winners is a statistically more challenging pursuit.
If I have had a bias over the past decade, it has been to write about those who were trying to find new ways to win, and not just for themselves. Silicon Valley is a hotbed of capitalism – everything here fits into the brackets of business and finance. But no one in the circles in which I have hung out ever wanted to conduct capitalism as usual.
Instead they mapped their ideals on to the valley’s money-making engines. Sometimes those ideals ran in the opposite direction to the simple idea of getting rich.
People such as Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, or those who sought to expand the public domain such as internet librarian Brewster Kahle, saw building a public trust of code and knowledge as being the true direction of networks.
Others saw capitalism as an ideal in itself and sought to unlock markets with technology and automate what might otherwise be imperfectly regulated. Some met in the middle, strange hybrids of individualistic libertarianism and liberal Utopianism that could flourish only in California.
What I love most about writing about Silicon Valley is not how it could predict the future elsewhere but rather how unpredictable the present was here. It has been, remains and must surely continue to be an endlessly fertile place for spectators and participants alike. The future isn’t flying cars; but self-driving cars? Stranger things have happened, and all within walking distance.