Silicon Valley and Hi-tech

I grew up with a dream of doing something in the “Hi-tech” industry. Back then I imagined it will be some breakthrough scientific work like inventing a perpetual energy machine or engineering a space elevator… something that will fall under the category of rocket science.

They say Silicon valley “is home to many of the world’s largest technology companies”. No doubt, any young technologist like me had his eyes set on Silicon Valley. So when I compare the nature of today’s so-called “hi-tech” hot companies, namely Facebook, Twitter… I can’t help but wonder where is the Science and Technology in them?

This morning I read Sarah Lacy’s Techcrunch article “Silicon Valley at a Cross Roads: Entertainment or Science?” and it all made sense.

She put into the words the very question that lingered in my mind.

Will it [Silicon Valley] follow the Web 2.0 path further down the road of media and entertainment or go back to its roots of hardcore science and technology?

According to her the valley made a choice between real hi-tech and Web 2.0 (that would lead to media innovation), back in early 2000s.

But in the early 2000s, the Valley was at a crossroads. Was the future cleantech or Web 2.0? Put another way, was the future starting a new stack or continuing to iterate on top of the mostly-built out one? The cleantech camp was championed by a lot of top Valley names– most famously John Doerr– who saw it as the most important way to change the world and an undeniably huge market that required real innovation. The Web 2.0 camp was championed largely by the PayPal Mafia’s angel investors like Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel, and a handful of other angels and mentors like Marc Andreessen. Many of them prized the fact that Web companies were the opposite of cleantech: Thanks to decades of technology build out they were cheap and low-tech to start, utterly changing everything about these companies from the size of the exit you needed to have a good return to how quickly you could know if you had something or not.

Ultimately, Web 2.0 won the Valley’s heart and hype….

She then makes a logical guess about future that the valley will continue down “a path where San Francisco becomes the center of Web media, the way New York was the center of news media and LA was the center for entertainment media. These businesses are easier to understand, quicker to evaluate and more likely to produce a series of newsy blog posts”

I have to say, her post brought a moment of clarity to me this morning. You should read the entire article. Few people have the ability to observe a big industry over a long period of time and make sense about where it came from and where it is leading. Sarah Lacy is one of them.

My understanding and my hope is that even though Silicon Valley takes the route of a media industry, their will be “real” hi-tech innovation somewhere in the world. I feel confident about it when I read about Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, or the Mega Machines episodes on Discovery channel that show behemoth engineering projects in China, Japan, S Korea. I also find promise in the grassroot culture of “Makers” that is taking shape in the form of Maker faire and the new industry of personal manufacturing that is evolving in the form of 3D printing. Hopefully we will build on top of the Web infrastructure that Silicon Valley provides and the true hi-tech innovation will take place in this virtual world and not in a specific physical valley.


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