“Silicon Valley is the only place on Earth not trying to figure out how to become Silicon Valley.” That's how Ethernet inventor and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe put it in the late 1990s, around the time I started tracing this long, strange trip myself. It's a quest full of great moments, from Charles de Gaulle's pilgrimage to the research parks and shopping centers of Palo Alto in 1960 to Russian president Dmitri Medvedev touring Twitter and Apple in 2010. (Ashton Kutcher even makes a guest appearance.)
But it's also a tale of seven decades of economic dreams unfulfilled, with most efforts falling short of their original intentions. Beautiful research parks and generous tax breaks attracted outposts of multinational companies, but fostering a lively startup community proved elusive. Replicating the distinctive mix that had evolved in the Bay Area and Seattle was near-impossible.
Well, times change.
That's what I realized during my travels and interviews last fall, which took me to both coasts and Europe and included lots of interesting conversations with journalists from around the world. There are startup clusters all over now, the result of technological, social, and economic shifts that have given tech a much more footloose geography and allowed industry networks to cross borders and oceans with ease. They also (like the original Valley) are the result of government policy, which has moved beyond research parks and a sprinkle of wishful thinking to more entrepreneurial, human-capital-focused strategies.
The new reality hit home onstage at Web Summit in Lisbon, where I was in conversation with government tech-policy leaders from France, Rwanda, and Hong Kong. It came from being in Lisbon itself, which has a thriving startup community thanks in part to government incentives designed to keep Portuguese technical and business talent from leaving for tech regions abroad. It was reinforced by conversations with entrepreneurs and companies that are global in workforce and customer base.
It also was a takeaway of the whole Amazon HQ2 saga, which is now a many-news-cycles-ago story but one that reverberated throughout the way cities were thinking about the tech sector this past fall. Overlooking the warnings of historians ;-), hundreds of cities and regions had dangled tax incentives in front of the tech giant, only to have Amazon choose two urban places, Northern Virginia and New York City, where it was already expanding. Political backlash propelled Amazon to pull out of New York, but it continued to grow its presence there anyway, without the tax breaks. So did Google, Apple, Facebook, and more.
The headline lesson: talent, not tax breaks or fancy facilities, is why tech companies make particular location choices. In the 1950s and 1960s, high tech suburbanized in part because that was where their employees wanted to live. Now large, vibrant, diverse cities are the location of choice for many tech companies--because those are the preferred locations of the workers they need to recruit and retain.
Tech's return to the city helps explain the new geography of the next Silicon Valley, and why the Valley is no longer a place in Northern California, but a global network. As tech shrinks down (mobile) and scales up (cloud), and software permeates every industry, landscaped research parks are giving way to dense urban neighborhoods. That creates new challenges of its own, of course, still giving me plenty to write about. But for someone who started on this path explaining why tech was a creature of the postwar California suburbs, it's a pretty remarkable departure.
It's also a reminder that high tech glory won't last forever. Don't get me wrong; Silicon Valley--and tech-booming Seattle, for that matter--will be around for quite a while. But ultimately they'll become like ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, industrial-age Manchester, auto-age Detroit: capitals of innovation eventually surpassed by other places, other technologies, other business and political systems.
Sure, there will be a next Silicon Valley. In the meantime, Silicon Valley is everywhere.
Here are highlights from where I've been and what I've done over the past few months:
Had a great conversation at Jackson Square Ventures in San Francisco, which featured THE CODE as part of its book club (venture capitalists with a book club--now that's an idea worth imitating!). You can find a recap and video clips here.
Lots of great tech podcasts and radio shows meant lots of great chats about the book over the fall, but the highlight was talking to self-described sparkly vampire Kara Swisher on Recode/Decode, which aired in December. (Just in time for holiday buying--thx, Kara!). Listen to the full episode on your favorite podcast app, or right here:
My columns this past fall for The New York Times included one departure from tech topics, inspired in good part by my giving a lecture on the Grant Administration in my history of the American presidency class--and my students' reactions to the political excesses of the Gilded Age. I thought it would be a good starting point for a piece on the anti-corruption origins of the civil service, and my editors agreed.
I returned to tech--throwing in some urban and political history in there as well--after that. Both the Bay Area and Seattle are experiencing an extreme affordable-housing crunch, and tech is often assigned the blame. The story is actually a little more complicated than that, as I argued in this piece. I think it received more comments and clicks than anything I've written thus far--showing that when you talk to West Coasters about real estate, you are guaranteed to get a lot of strong opinions!
Along with all that, I had a number of great conversations with journalists about how history can inform current tech headlines, from talking about the ties that bind tech titans with Der Spiegel to discussing the wave of worker activism with Vox to commenting in The Atlantic about why Silicon Valley no longer thinks small is beautiful.
You also might have heard that it's also a presidential election year, and I had a few opportunities to talk about the Democratic debates with Time as well as talk with Fortune about what 2020 has in common with 1976 and 1984 (sorry, Democrats). And coming up in February, you'll be able to see me and a whole bunch of terrific political historians on CNN's new season of Race for the White House.
I'm still hitting the road regularly to talk about the book and would love to see you there. Click on the links to these public talks for more information and registration.
MARCH 9: "Critical History Now" @ The New School, New York NY
Zuka contemplates the next Silicon Valley. Or searches for a squirrel.
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