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Arrogance of the Silicon Valley

Despite the valley having lost its strut, it's denizens continue in arrogant slumber, writes Binay Kumar.
PTI | By Binay Kumar, California
UPDATED ON JAN 05, 2005 08:04 PM IST

"Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall grow cold"
(Matthew 24:12).

These are the words of Jesus lamenting the callousness of people's hearts in the days just before His return. In another passage, the pervasive gloom is thus described, "This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection … lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God" (2 Timothy 3:1-4).

In an age when Biblical allegories may sound as another beep from extra-terrestrials of a different galaxy, let me turn to a more recent bemoaning of a twentieth-century soul. "It [is] a daring thing to insist on the happiness of the autonomous individual in the teeth of all that would mitigate against it in a decade notable for kitsch, consumerism, and herd mentality. It [is] equally daring to insist on the primacy of the imagination in its mission to press back against a view of reality that would ground itself in the worship of material wealth." David Lehmann, The Last Avant-Garde.

Both passages ring true as you confront life everyday in America. And the view from the west coast is even more dramatic. I was fortunate to be at a dinner reception the other evening rubbing shoulders with some of the high and mighty of the technology revolution. Held at one of the most exclusive clubs in the heart of downtown San Jose, the 17th floor penthouse dining room presented a glorious view of the valley as the lights came on the vast expanse outside hemmed in by the silhouetted mountains against a moonlight sky.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald noted in 'The Great Gatsby', the rich are different from the rest of us. In fact not only are the rich different from the rest of us, the rich are different from one generation to the next. And here I was at a gathering of the rich spanning at least two generations of the valley's famed enterprising spirit. I tried desperately to look for a single common denominator that brought these people together and was struck by one single syllable defining all they did or aspire to do: a loud, screaming "ME'!

The Silicon Valley is a microcosm of the larger-than-life American spirit: its movers and shakers are often described with such adjectives as "arrogant," "cocky," "egotistical," or "flamboyant," which they in turn read as "self-assured", "highly focused", "daring", or "smartly dressed". As one self-proclaimed Valley guru confided in me, it depends on how you look at the glass- half empty or half full! Interesting, but his observation truly falls into place as you interact with a lot whose charismas are measured by the ebb and tide of the stock market.

Hundreds of others, who like him have spent the last two-three decades in the thick of it, will tell you the Valley in the 90s was a modern-day Florence - a Mecca for unleashed creativity for entrepreneurs and technology artists. But unlike the Florentine foundation built on solid rock, here it was all in the head, and in the hype. No wonder it took little, so to say, for success to go their heads.

It is not difficult to see how the spirit of the Valley has undergone a massive transformation, a makeover that separates it from its legendary though humble beginnings. During the move from the musty garages which served as the laboratories of entrepreneurial experimentation to the multi-acre campuses that dot the boulevards today, the dominant IT companies here -- those that have been gobbling up start-ups for the past 10 years -- have forgotten their roots. Those successful start-ups are now mature businesses saddled with the same sorts of bureaucratic baggage as the Fortune 500 giants that preceded them. That in part explains the rut in which the valley finds itself hankering for a renewal of the 90s spirit that may prove ever elusive.

So, where are we today? Those days of champagne and caviar are a distant memory now. Silicon Valley lost its strut two years ago, and then some of its bearings last year. Now the valley is questioning its very identity, as the financial pounding continues. However, the arrogant slumber lurches on. Talk to any one in private and you'll see the façade come crashing down. The rollercoaster ride of the nineties hid within its swollen womb a cauldron of cold-blooded self-interest, an orchestrated symphony of materialistic money-grabbing technocrats.

I have heard it often observed that the leading industry in the Valley is neither technology nor engineering nor venture capital or finance, but the creation of a highly individuated, vigilantly tended self. That evening I came face to face with it as it stood in front of me unashamed naked. Of course, this phenomenon is not confined to this famously introverted landmass called the Bay Area; it can be found along the length and breadth of the US and perhaps around the world. At play, as at work, and in their daily lives, never before have I seen people as insistent as they are here on the dominion of their needful natures. Sometimes it seems as if everyone is singing in a grand chorus, "It's gotta be ME."

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