Silicon Valley: An unrepeatable miracle?
Podcast Interview with Margaret O’Mara, the author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
Touches on a lot of similar topics to From Counterculture to Cyberculture
What caused the big influx of extraordinary opportunity in Northern California, despite mostly being another sleepy fruit-growing region? Mostly the result of the Cold War and the military-industrial complex and the power of Stanford – these two were not completely separate.
A lot of military funding went to the west (and to California and thus Stanford). Big result of Fred Terman (Dean of Engineering at the time): “let’s remake Stanford so that it’s a perfect receptacle for this new money. We are a true Cold War university.”
The military-industrial complex rose as a result of the Cold War, showing how a capitalist democracy can be ’triumphant’ over more socialist policies. As a result, a lot of government money went to private defense contractors (think Lockheed). When the Space Race came along, a lot of that money went to places specializing in small, light, powerful devices (microchips, integrated circuirts), and this happened to be Silicon Valley.
Government wasn’t the sole reason this explosion happened, rather more of “a customer, as a catalyst, as a kind of de facto venture capitalist at an early stage, when there was no commercial market for this stuff.”
To have such mobilization around this massive effort, you do probably need some sort of geopolitical catalyst. It’s hard for it to be purely commercial… That’s the thing that can catalyze people, government, and resources into doing these big things.
Problem is that this ‘urgency’ needs to be bipartisan – this was very difficult when the Soviet Union was widely feared. As a result, anything even mildly centrist is perceived as socialist -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULYWIDcUOY4
Abstraction of the problem
Antipathy that the Valley has had towards the government is kind of like, “Well it doesn’t have anything to do with us, if they could stay as far away as possible it would be good.” – tech is political
# Democratic Capitalism
Democratic capitalism and the ability for people to protest what their government is doing.
Historically, white-collar tech workers in industry have been very OK with whatever their companies are doing as long is it gives them a comfy lifestyle – yet now people are starting to question it.
So much of the technical expertise that used to be distributed across industry and government is now just in industry. This inbalance means that government agencies like the Pentagon and CIA need to go to these big tech companies to build good tech.
# Blue-sky Operations
“Spending money on moonshots, whether metaphorical or real, is kind of something only the government can do.”
Examples like DARPA, investing in technology that is at least a few decades away from being commercializable or being something the military could possibly use.
Personal Computing? Moving away from establishments having all the computing power and giving power back to the individual user. “We’re going to create these devices, take them, and build computers of our own that are apart from this corporate military-industrial business.”
To tell a company that is accountable to shareholders and quarterly earnings calls, “Okay, the moonshot’s on you guys,” is not so great.
# Sandbox Model
“Throw a lot of money in its direction and get out of the way” Create the sandbox, an incredible container with lots of resources in it, and allow creative people to play around in the sand and see what they develop. Naturally very incompatible with political traditions in other places.
# Moonshot People and Immigration
People like Andy Grove who later becomes the CEO of Intel, come into the country as teenage refugees from places like Hungary where the immigration officers probably thought he would be a ‘drain on the system’.
But then you have winners of one generation picking the winners of the next, creating a very self-reinforcing feedback loop. This as a result causes huge diversity problems where it works really well for elite college students in the US but less so for the housewives in Myanmar.