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Is Silicon Valley reinventing itself?

September 25, 2012 21:30 IST

The challenge is to go out and do something different; not one more 'application' to download, not one more 'Angry Birds', a YouTube sensation.

Something is changing yet again in the innovation hub that is still Silicon Valley. B S Prakash on whether it is reinventing itself perpetually?
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Seven years ago, mint fresh in San Francisco as the new Indian consul general, I first started exploring the mystique of Silicon Valley. My innocence then found expression in my first column in this space: Sounding silly in the Silicon Valley. What happened was this.

I had asked one of my old friends from Bangalore, already a pro and a prosperous Valley denizen, like thousands of Indians there, to show me the place. As he drove me around several similar looking small towns, Santa Clara, San Jose, Mountain View, all with sparkling blocks of low roofed structures in park-like campuses, lawns glistening with water sprinklers, and SUVs being driven by young preppy types in shorts and T-shirts, I was admiring the ambience.

But after a while, I had to ask: "But where is Silicon Valley? I need a photo against its sign for my mother".

He looked at me with amusement. 'Don't, be silly, what were you expecting. Hollywood with a proclamation of itself on the hills?' he said. He then proceeded to enlighten me that there was no such locale as Silicon Valley. It was a collective name for all the towns that we had traversed already with legendary companies like HP, Oracle, Google and Apple dotting the landscape.

Seven years is a long time in the real world. In the digital or the virtual world of the Valley, it is more like seven decades. So much has changed but I have tried to keep in touch with the 'updates' of what is happening in my earlier habitat. Not because I am a technology geek; far from it despite my Bangalore origins.

It is more that I am interested in the sociology of technology, on the way it impacts on our mind, behaviour, spirit and society. Therefore in Brazil, where I have been since then, I have attempted to keep up with it and the fact that some of my previous friends from the technology world come here from time to time helps.

It is thus that I was talking the other day to a technology fund manager from California who was raising money from Brazilian fat cats in Sao Paulo.

"Tell me, has the vision and the spirit faded a bit in Silicon Valley?" I asked him.

"How do you mean?" he retorted.

"Seems to be becoming more narrower. You know a kind of an obsession with your own image. Updating it constantly on Facebook. Broadcasting what you ate and where, to the whole world through Twitter. Where is the real creativity of Google 'Search' or the Apple iPad?" I asked.

"Don't be silly," he said. "All the buzz is in the social media space," he concluded using his standard lingo. We had come full circle and I was again being regarded as an innocent.

Was I being silly? Frankly, I don't think so.

Silicon Valley has had its phases. First came Microsoft and smart software, though from Seattle rather than the Valley, but never mind. Then came the PCs (the personal computer for those of you born before 1930), and the physical downsizing and the universal accessibility of a computer.

The Internet began to spread thereafter changing the world forever. The revolution of 'search' by Google and the irrelevance of the human memory followed. We are still in the next phase with all these available on the 'mobile platform' to use my friend's jargon once again. It is an era in which you don't need the PC; it is sitting in your pocket.

So what are the dreams for the new generation of entrepreneurs, the new crop of Stanford drop outs, itching to change the world in their garages? What are today's Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Sergey Brins doing?

The answer seems obvious and the poster boy already there: Marc Zuckerberg and the social networking realm. But is it? That was my doubt. Let me explain.

Today, when I try to keep up with the technology world on Business Week magazine or Bloomberg-West news, the Bible and the Bhagwatd Gita of that universe, all I hear are the chantings of names like Zynga, Instagram, Yammer, apart from the exalted deities FB (Facebook) or Twitter.

For those readers unfamiliar with other names, my apologies. They come and go and do not bother. But essentially they embody a narcissistic trend of focusing on yourself and your 'friends' rather than the Universe.

To summarise some of these companies which has made big names and mega money: Zynga, builds sophisticated computer games in which you can build virtual cities; Yammer helps answer short questions between corporations and is labeled a social network for enterprises; Instagram helps share pictures and was sold to Facebook for over a billion dollars etc.

In short bright techies, wearing hoodies -- the dress popularised by Zuckerberg -- inventing games or indulging in pastimes with each other while making millions.

What is wrong with this? Nothing. And yet, if you are an observer from outside, it is just possible to detect that ennui may be setting in for some, that the best and the brightest engineers of this generation may want something more serious and real as distinct from the virtual solipsism that they are engaged in.

Some indicators. Bill Gates was an early example who having become the richest man in the world, turned his attention from problems of computing to problems of humanity. His current interests include changing the American school system for the underprivileged, eradicating polio and malaria and such like.

He has brought the same passion, precision and application of intellect to the problems of the real world as he earlier did to software business. More recently, Peter Thiel, a cofounder of PayPal -- a highly successful digital money transfer application -- commented 'We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.'

What he meant was that the Silicon Valley innovators who had dreamed the impossible were now limiting themselves to Twitter standards, short and small. His aims for investments: medical research to stop aging, space exploration, advanced robotics. To change the world, no less, not merely to change the 'relationship status' on your Facebook page.

Elon Musk, who in my reading is likely to be the next Steve Jobs, has already done some of it. He is a fascinating figure in the next phase of Silicon Valley, but yet to become a legend. Like others of his peerage, he too became an incredibly young millionaire by selling PayPal and making a personal fortune of over a hundred million dollars in his twenties.

Thereafter, his attention turned to impacting the world and his interests are, a superior electric car, private and commercial space launch, and creating a solar city. In the last year, he has already achieved some of his superhuman ambitions and his SpaceX programme of commercial rocket launches is getting contracts from NASA.

Another known figure of Silicon Valley, David Sacks, created some disquiet among social media fans, recently. He argued that all the improvisations or marginal innovations in IT are likely to be controlled or bought over by the big five of the technology world: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook.

He feels this will cause the death of the innovation in Silicon Valley as hitherto seen. The challenge is to go out and do something different, he argues and not one more 'application' to download, not one more 'Angry Birds', a YouTube sensation.

So something is changing yet again as we look at the innovation hub that is still Silicon Valley.

Is it reinventing itself perpetually? Is it going back a bit from silicon to cement, in a metaphorical sense -- from coding to building?

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br

Please read more columns by Ambassador Prakash here

B S Prakash