Silicon Valley’s View of the World

February 6, 2016

As I have written about previously, California is another world. Endlessly fascinating, endlessly changing. It is also becoming the power centre of our current world. New York, London, Los Angeles, sure. But think Silicon Valley, a place so powerful that it has turned San Francisco into its “bedroom community”, according to Rebecca Solnit and others. (I suspect that if you live there, this is so not news.) Why has Qantas started direct flights to San Francisco from Sydney? Easy to answer, that.

Still not convinced? What’s the most valuable company in the world, by market capitalisation? Apple. Also in the top five: Google and Microsoft. Microsoft? I hear you say, isn’t that so last century? Apparently not.

In the November 2015 issue of “The Atlantic”, the “View from the Valley” column reported on a survey of 101 technology leaders. Go to the article for all the results, but here are some highlights:

Who would the tech leaders vote for?
– Hillary Clinton, 43%
– Bernie Sanders, 11%
– Jeb Bush, 5%
– Lawrence Lessig, 2%
– Marco Rubio, 2%
– Martin O’Malley, 2%
– Warren Buffet, 2%
– “Anyone but Trump”, 5%
– Undecided, 28%

Which TV show or movie of the past decade best captured the culture of Silicon Valley?
– HBO’s “Silicon Valley”, 37%
– “The Social Network”, 12%
– “Game of Thrones”, 7%
(This was before the release of the current “Steve Jobs” film.  My review to come next week.)

In 20 years, which of the following companies will still be in business?
– Apple, 95%
– Google, 94%
– Amazon, 91%
– Facebook, 75%
– Microsoft, 71%
– IBM, 54%
– Uber, 52%
– LinkedIn, 48%
– PayPal, 39%
– eBay, 29%
– Twitter, 23%
– Yahoo, 16%

(My comment: the ephemeral nature of the tech industry is a wonder to behold. And these hard insights are a real lesson to those of us who think that what we see now will be there in the future. Isn’t Yahoo about to disappear – despite the fact that it still has one of the biggest media audiences in the world?)

Could the Sony hack happen to your company?
– Yes, 74%
– No, 24%
Comment by Dev Ittycheria, President and CEO of MongoDB: “Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves.”


The geography of digital

December 29, 2014

Here’s more proof that despite the digital world appearing to be sitting solely in cyberspace, geography matters for digital businesses – perhaps even more than ever.

In his article “When G,M. Was Google” in The New Yorker of 1 December 2014, Nicholas Lemann writes:

One of the ironies of the tech economy, duly noted by Schmidt and Rosenberg, is that while the products and the users are geographically untethered, the businesses that supply them are increasingly clustered in one physical location, Silicon Valley. That’s because of the unusual, and apparently non-replicable, infrastructure of support there: the Stanford engineering school, the Sand Hill Road venture-capital firms, the angel investors, the talent pool of coders and engineers, the technical-infrastructure providers.

Did you get that phrase – “increasingly clustered”?

So much for the work from anywhere, do all work from home concept. People still need – and indeed want – to be physically proximate to each other.

The reference to “Schmidt and Rosenberg” above comes from the book How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt (former Google CEO) and Jonathan Rosenberg (former Head of Product Development).


Evernote California and technology marketing

December 4, 2013

This week’s Time magazine includes a very complimentary feature article about the Silicon Valley company Evernote, whose motto is “Remember everything”.

Have a look at the photo below; it accompanies the article (and you can see a portion of it online):

Evernote CaliforniaNote the unusual inclusion of the word “California”.  So it reads “Evernote California Remember Everything”.

I have been writing for some time how the California brand (see Apple) has now become such an important part of the technology marketing.  What, exactly, is it about California that is meant to convince us?  I am not sure, but clearly people believe that the California identification is important.


San Francisco then and now – in California the future comes crashing towards us

November 10, 2013

San Francisco in the late 1970s was not a happy place.

I know.  I lived there then, although I did not realise it at the time.

Events that took place during this time included the Patricia Hearst kidnapping (February 1974) and bank robbery (April 1974); the Jonestown massacre (November 1978); assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow supervisor Dan White (also November 1978, a devastating spiritual and psychic “two punch”), events captured in both the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the feature Milk; and the trial result of White, with riots in the streets (May 1979). There was a whole lot more.

I had only lived in one big city before then (Boston), so I think I assumed that this was normal for cities.  But it wasn’t.  It was weird and bizarre.

I don’t think that anyone has truly figured out the connections between these terrible events – and the pall of doom that they cast over that beautiful city’s spirit.  I have looked for explanations, and uncovered few.

Kevin Starr, possibly the best contemporary chronicler of California history and the California State Librarian Emeritus, has written a multi-volume series of historical books about the state, under the title “Americans and the California Dream”.  His books cover the periods 1850-1915, the 1920s, the Depression in the 1930s, the 1940s, 1950-1963 and 1990-2002.  Not the 1970s or 1980s.  Starr has not – at least not yet – grappled with this troubled time.

I was delighted to find two very different books that have.  In his 2012 book, The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love (not the 2011 American fantasy film starring Nicolas Cage), David Talbot (founder of Salon), deals directly with this period – the best attempt of analysis I have read.  Season of the Witch book coverAnd Ellen Ullman, in her novel By Blood (also 2012), also deals with the time (set in 1974) through a fictional gothic style story of a therapist.  Ironically, Ullman reviewed Talbot’s book in The New York Times, thereby stimulating a response from Talbot, in which he pointed out that his “San Francisco was not hers”.

That’s part of the point.  Everybody’s San Francisco is different.  It’s what makes a great city great; each of us has a different experience that somehow adds up to a whole.

In so many ways, California represents the future – and it has done so for a very long time.  As Starr writes in his book California: A History, by the year 2000, 32.4 percent of the state’s population was Latino and almost 11 percent of Asian origin.  San Francisco was “on the verge of becoming the first prominent American city with an Asian American majority.”

And then it happened:  as of 1 July 2013, officially California no longer had a “white” majority, joining Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia as “majority minority” states.  This foreshadows the future of America, predicted to be a “non-white” majority country by 2043, the “first major post-industrial society in the world where minorities will be the majority,” says immigration expert Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The geography of California, of course, is also exciting – as anyone who has ever visited knows.  As Starr writes:

“Just sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the state, is Death Valley, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. Here temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit, as they did on July 10, 1913. In midsummer the Central Valley can be as hot as the Equator.

Did the demography or the geography of California contribute to what was, in effect, that unhappy moment in San Francisco’s history in the mid to late 1970s?  I doubt it.  California has always represented some sense of freedom to Americans.  The early Hollywood Jewish moguls left the east coast for Los Angeles seeking fewer strictures on their work (and better weather).  Later generations – me included – moved there for economic opportunities, the weather and the lifestyle.  Perhaps it was that sense of freedom that encouraged such bizarre and out of the norm behaviour.

Northern California has now moved to a different moment – one that is equally bizarre in its own way.  An early November 2013 widely reported speech by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan has canvassed the possibility that Silicon Valley should become its own country, because the USA appears now to be “the Microsoft of nations” (apparently a bad thing).  The speech has caused a great deal of exclamations over arrogance and “naïve libertarianism” (Nicholas Carr).  Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times called the speech, “an unusually honest articulation of ideas that are common among members of a digital overclass whose decisions shape ever more of our lives” (italics are mine).

The tech industry apparently now threatens Boston as the centre for higher education (MOOCs – massive open online courses), New York for finance and media (Twitter and blogs) and Los Angeles for entertainment (Netflix and iTunes), reported The Australian newspaper.  All true.

So this is the future of America, one that is increasingly likely NOT to look like its past.

(Post script:  Looking for one of the best recent movies to portray the San Francisco area?Fruitvale Station film poster  Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, opened in the USA a couple of months ago and opens here in Australia later this month.  It replays the accidental shooting of a 22 year old black man at the BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – Fruitvale station.  Highly recommended.)


California – unappreciated by all

August 7, 2013

I have “waxed lyrical” about California in my posts, so here’s a short description from the University of California at Berkeley alumni series that took place last October (2012), just prior to the Presidential election:

California is the 9th largest economy in the world, supplies the nation with much of its food, resources and innovation, and has the finest public university system ever conceived. It is also buried under a mountain of debt and gets little respect from the federal government. Democrats treat the state like an ATM at election time, and then largely write it off for four years. Republicans scorn it as an incorrigible bastion of liberalism.

An interesting view.

However I will put it that California exists independently from politics, and no matter which party occupies the White House, California will do just fine.  It is too big, too diverse, and too powerful, with too many breaking-the-edge 21st century (and 20th century, for that matter) industries.

California Bear


The Internship – A movie parable on work in the digital age

July 13, 2013

Inside the film “The Internship” is a potentially very funny, satiric and deeply insightful commentary struggling to emerge about the nature of work in the new digital age.  The story is simple and yet appealing to “middle America” (or middle Australia for that matter):  two guys in their early 40s, Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay), have been laid off from their watch distribution company in Georgia (okay, think, the southern suburbs of Adelaide, then).  They struggle to find meaningful work in the new digital economy.  (Anyone recognise this situation?  I sure do.)   Nick even swallows his pride and goes to work for his brother-in-law, a sleazy mattress store owner (Will Ferrell).

But here’s where fantasy comes in:  Nick and Billy apply – as a pair – for an internship at Google in California, have a Skype video interview from a public library (no less), and successfully bullshit their way in, despite knowing almost nothing and saying even less (see footnote below).   Apply as a pair?  To Google?  Set aside the unreality here, there is something very satisfying for those of us who are not truly exceptional to think that perhaps we could make it into a Google internship, and from Atlanta, no less.

All power to “The Internship” for engaging with what I call “the present moment” of the rapidly changing workplace.  The film also contains some wonderful pop culture, social and literacy references that I do not recall having made it into mainstream films before.  My favourite is the scene that quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which is about why highly successful people achieve their success despite extraordinary competition.

“The Internship” also is, in its own sweet way (and it is sweet), a film about northern California.  I have written separately about how northern California and the Silicon Valley IT industry promote the concept of “abundance”; “The Internship” inhabits this world perfectly.  But it goes further, providing us with delightful shots of scenic San Francisco, a sort of Edenic paradise where the sun always shines and the food is free (at least at Google).  In one scene, a team of Google interns are sitting and lying on a headland in Marin County overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and looking back to San Francisco.  If you know the geography of this location, you have to wonder, “how did they get there?”  It’s an awfully long walk (hours, really) from the nightclubs that they had been visiting in the city in the previous scene.  Okay, “it’s only a movie” (quoting Alfred Hitchcock, who reportedly said that to actor Ingrid Bergman).

Ultimately “The Internship” has some great ideas wrapped up in a script that too often takes the easy way out.  We have a long Harry Potter-ish “Quidditch” match, a very long nightclub scene, and a bunch of good guys/bad guys set ups.  (Max Minghella plays the nasty “bad” cheating intern.) The good ideas? The film nicely illustrates the value of salesmanship, relationship management and customer engagement, as well as the importance of wisdom, experience and strategy over short-term tactics, arrogance and youthful naiveté.

In one true-to-life way, “The Internship” does capture the structural re-adjustment of work in our time:  in the film there appear to be about 100 interns vying for only five places at Google.  The ephemeral nature – what Ross Perlin describes in his book Intern Nation as “the ugly new culture” of internships – is on full show here.  I wonder if Google, which apparently approved the script and helped the production, truly understood the nature of what they were endorsing, by showing publicly the cut-throat and frequently unpleasant nature of internship practice.

Despite all that, “The Internship” ends on a triumphant note.  Yes (Spoiler here!  Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know the ending!), our heroes are part of the winning team and get the jobs.  But the rest of them, the other 95, they all “lost”, right?  They don’t get the jobs.  It’s not “win-win”.  In fact, it’s very win-lose, and most of them lose.  This is a trend with many current films, where we are meant to celebrate triumph, but it’s actually disaster.  In “Man of Steel”, the bad guys lose – but New York City (and who knows where else?) has been devastated, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  In “World War Z”, the zombies are defeated – well, almost – but the world is a shadow of its former self.

The disaster in “The Internship” is not the other 95 interns.  They are bright young things with great educations from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke and the rest.  They will probably all get good jobs, just not at Google.  No, the disaster is the changed nature of work, and the mattress salesman from Georgia or southern Adelaide.  He is not likely to find meaningful work in this age, if he can find any work at all as he ages.  And no amount of movie fantasy can change that.

The Internship image1

Footnote:

Nick and Billy’s successful application for the Google internship reminds me of a possibly fictional story about the writer Gertrude Stein.  Stein studied with philosopher and psychologist William James at Radcliffe College (part of Harvard University) from 1893 to 1897.  As the story goes, on her final philosophy examination paper one fine spring day, Stein handed the paper back in with only these words written:  “I don’t want to take this exam.  It’s too nice out.”  To that, James supposedly replied, “Miss Stein, you truly understand the meaning of philosophy”, and gave her an “A”.  I understand that generations of students have attempted to imitate Stein’s “stunt”, probably all of them without success.  But “The Internship” hews to the line that a few words of bullshit can cut through anything and get us in to Google or the “A” at Harvard.  The problem is:  very few of us are Gertrude Stein, and extremely few of us are dealing with William James.

Gertrude Stein portrait by Picasso(Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso)


Designed by Apple in California – the new campaign

July 1, 2013

As my post earlier this week details, California’s lock on our imagination continues, this time with Apple.

Apple’s latest campaign goes under the name “Designed by Apple”, and features two different videos, both of which end with the tagline “Designed by Apple in California”.

“Apple=California”.  Never mind that my iPhone was manufactured in China.  It was designed by Apple in California.  That’s all that matters.

If the Chinese think they will ever catch up to the Americans, it’s only when we are convinced by the statement “Designed in China” that they have a chance.  This may happen, but I am not certain if it will be in my lifetime.

Apple’s “Intention” video launched the company’s “World Wide Developer Conference 2013” (10-14 June), held in the Moscone Center in San Francisco.   The video is worth viewing – it was already viewed by some 695,731 people by the time I got there:

There is a specific reference in the video to “saying no”, a point that that Steve Jobs made in his presentation to the World Wide Developers Conference in 1997, in which he stated:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.  (Click here for the full video of Jobs in 1997.)

And here is a copy the “no” frame below:

There are a thousand nos

And here is the just released “Made by Apple in California” TV ad (1’02”) that Apple has released:

The word text of this ad is:

This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product. How it makes someone feel. Will it make life better? Does it deserve to exist? We spend a lot of time on a few great things. Until every idea we touch enhances each life it touches. You may rarely look at it. But you’ll always feel it. This is our signature. And it means everything.

There are also “still image” advertisement forms of this campaign.  I sure noticed it here in Sydney with a full two-page spread advertisement by Apple in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 29 June 2013. They repeated it again today – Monday 1 July 2013, with a two page spread on pages 2 and 3, the first time I can remember such a spread so close to the front of that paper (Good on ‘ya, Apple, for supporting that old analogue – print – media!  I sure paid attention to it.)  Can we expect more in the next few days?

Complete text of the newspaper ad – which includes more words than the 1’02” video version – reads as follows (including their actual formatting, spelling and punctuation) – an expansion of the words in the TV ad above:

**********

This is it.

This is what matters.

The experience of a product.

How it makes someone feel.

When you start by imagining

What that might be like,

You step back.

You think.

Who will this help?

Will it make life better?

Does it deserve to exist?

If you are busy making everything,

How can you perfect anything?

We don’t believe in coincidence.

Or dumb luck.

There are a thousand “no’s”

For every “yes”.

We spend a lot of time

On a few great things.

Until every idea we touch

Enhances each life it touches.

We’re engineers and artists.

Craftsmen and inventors.

We sign our work.

You may rarely look at it.

But you’ll always feel it.

This is our signature.

And it means everything.

Designed by Apple in California

****

Poetry?  Yes.  Certainly consistent with previous Apple campaigns, going back to their “Think” campaign.

Here is a grainy photo so you can see the “analogue” version of the ad:

Apple ad SMH 29June2013

Postscript on 19 July 2013:

Apple continues its admirable financial support for the Sydney Morning Herald, with yet another two-page “Designed by Apple in California” ad on pages 2 & 3 of today’s paper.   See below:

SMH Designed by Apple 19July