As I mentioned in the last post, a friend is looking at the response to 9/11 in Silicon Valley, and the degree to which the Valley has mobilized to fight the war on terror. Even though we both have reservations about the way that war has been carried out, we both find disquieting the fact that– on the surface, anyway– the Valleys’ response has been rather tepid. Scott McNeally said that everyone should have a national ID card, and he and Larry Ellison traded barbs about whether Sun or Oracle should manage the back end of that system.

Why hasn’t there been more of a mobilization? It’s not like the region is overloaded with work and jobs, after all. I have a tentative answer, which consists of a couple parts.

  • During most of the Cold War, Silicon Valley’s leaders– i.e., CEOs, university deans and presidents, members of boards, etc.– used to think that doing work for the government and military was a kind of national service: an honor, and a civic responsibility. Sure, you got paid for it (most of the time, anyway), but it was something you were supposed to do. I suspect that this is a cultural norm that is no longer shared by most of the Valley’s elite.
  • There is a deep, ultimately corrosive distrust of government here. Among liberal circles here, “government” equals the CIA (Manichean, secretive, and bad); among conservatives, “government” equals the DMV (bumbling, incompetent, and probably unnecessary). The notion of the state as a something noble is hard to find. I’ve always been amazed at the popularity of zoning horror stories here– ones where the local board prevents someone from putting up a fence taller than 5 feet, or planting an oak tree, or what have you– and put it down to an obsession with real estate; but now I suspect it’s a reflection of a profound hostility to government. (For the record, my own experience with building inspectors has been enough to turn me into an anarchist. Well, almost.)
  • There’s a lack of recognition of the degree to which Silicon Valley is a child of the military-industrial complex. We focus on Sand Hill Road, deal-making at Il Fornaio, and nonstop entrepreneurship; but the Valley was built in the 1960s and 1970s on government, and especially defense, money. That money helped turn Stanford into a great research university; supported the expansion of the Valley’s population; helped grow HP, Fairchild, Varian, et al ad infinitum; and paid for basic research on little things like the ARPANet and groupware. As much as I hate to admit it, the military industrial complex was a good thing for the Valley, and arguably the boom of the 1990s was a high-tech equivalent of the Soviet privatization of its gigantic enterprises: one in which value wasn’t so much created as reapportioned. (Caveat lector: I confess I have no statistics to back that up; it’s just intuition. But that’s why it appears on a self-published Web site, not in American Economic Review, dummy.)

So the Salon article resonated some in its suggestion that we’re unintentionally unbuilding our infrastructure for technological innovation by offshoring. Maybe it’s something we’ve actually been doing for a few years, and didn’t notice before.