Silly man says stupid thing, Silicon Valley edition

A fellow named Jerzy Gangi advances a bunch of hypotheses to answer a not-very-interesting question about why Silicon Valley funds some things (e.g. Instagram) and not others (e.g. Hyperloop). Along the way we get some speculation about the amount of cojones possessed by VCs (insufficient!) and how well the market rewards innovation (insufficiently!), but the question is boring because the answer is already well-known: infrastructure projects of the scope and scale of Hyperloop (provided they’re feasible to begin with) require massive up-front investments with uncertain returns, while an Instagram requires comparatively little investment with the promise of a big return. Mystery solved! You can PayPal me the $175 you would have given Gangi for the same information spread over an hour of time at grapesmoker@gmail.com.

Despite the fact that Gangi’s question is not very interesting on its own, his writeup of it actually contains an interesting kernel that I want to use as a touch-off point for exploring a a rather different idea. You see, while criticism of techno-utopianism (and Silicon Valley, its material manifestation which will be used metonymically with it from here on out) has been widespread, it usually doesn’t address a fundamental claim that Silicon Valley makes about itself; namely, that Silicon Valley is an innovative environment. Critics like Evgeny Morozov are likely to only be peripherally interested in the question; Morozov is far more concerned with asking whether the things Silicon Valley wants disrupted actually ought to be “disrupted.” Other critiques have focused on the increasing meaninglessness of that very concept and the deleterious effects that those disruptions have on the disrupted. But as a rule, discussion about Silicon Valley takes it for granted that Silicon Valley is the engine of innovation that it claims to be, even if that innovation comes at a price for some.

I think this is a fundamentally mistaken view. Silicon Valley is “innovative” only if your bar for innovation is impossibly low; (much) more often than not what Silicon Valley produces is merely a few well-known models repackaged in shinier wrapping. That this is so can be seen from looking at this list of recent Y Combinator startups. What, in all this, constitutes an “innovative” idea? The concept that one can use data to generate sales predictions? Or perhaps the idea of price comparison? The only thing on here that looks even remotely like something that’s developing new technology is the Thalmic whatsis, and even that is not likely to be anything particularly groundbreaking. These may or may not be good business ideas, but that’s not the question. The question is: where’s the innovation? And the answer is that there isn’t a whole lot of it, other than taking things that people used to do via other media (like buying health insurance) and making it possible to do over the internet.

There’s nothing wrong with not being innovative, by the way. Most companies are not innovative; they just try and sell a product that the consumer might want to buy. The problem is not the lack of innovation, but the blatant self-misrepresentation in which Silicon Valley collectively engages. It’s hardly possible to listen to any one of Silicon Valley’s ubiquitous self-promoters without hearing paeans to how wonderfully innovative it is; if the PR is to be believed, Silicon Valley is the source and font of all that is new and good in the world. Needless to say, this is a completely self-serving fantasy which bears very little resemblance to any historically or socially accurate picture of how real innovation actually happens. To the extent that any innovation took place in Silicon Valley, it didn’t take place at Y Combinator funded start-ups, but rather at pretty large industrial-size concerns like HP and Fairchild Semiconductor. No one in the current iteration of Silicon Valley has produced anything remotely as innovative as Bell Labs. Maybe the Tesla could yet live up to that lofty ideal, but it’s pretty unlikely that  internet company, no matter how successful, ever will.

Ha-Joon Chang has adroitly observed that the washing machine did more to change human life than the Internet has. But the washing machine is not shiny (anymore) or new (anymore) or sexy, so it’s easy to take it for granted. The Internet is not new (anymore) either, but unlike the washing machine, the capability exists to make it ever shinier, and then sell the resulting shiny objects as brand-new innovations when of course they aren’t really any such thing. As always, the actual product of Silicon Valley is, by and large, the myth of its own worth and merit; what’s being sold is not any actual innovation but a story about who is to be classed as properly innovative (and thereby preferably left untouched by regulation and untaxed by the very social arrangements which make their existence possible).

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