It’s been a lot of fun watching Silicon Valley this past election year. It’s quite a contrast to political apathy and almost religious faith in free markets – think Ayn Rand with a laptop – that once carried the day.
The realization that things around here had changed came when finance, tech folks, start-up CEOs and reporters watching Obama’s victory speech said, almost in unison: “Hey look, Sam Perry’s on TV …. with Jesse Jackson? And Oprah!“
Even though he’s going to raise their taxes by a lot, Silicon Valley went for Obama in a big, big way. And Sam Perry – a former reporter, an investor and advisor to start-ups (even this one!) – was part of that effort. So was Netscape founder Marc Andreessen who’s taking credit for introducing Obama to the wonders of social networks.
It’s a change, make no mistake about that. Ten years ago as tech people and their financiers began to understand the reach and depth of the Internet, there was a lot of talk about how states would become less influential. There was a lot of babbling over at places like Wired magazine about how the web was going to give rise to individual action that would, eventually, do away with the need for government and nations.
One of the more articulate folks on this point was Avram Miller, then an executive at Intel and one of the smarter thinkers about where that company was headed. This year Miller has been a strong advocate of Barack Obama’s presidency. Which seems like it’s a contradiction. If you believe the state is less important, why do you care who runs the place?
“I don’t know that I’ve changed my mind,” says Miller. “For me this wasn’t so much about politics,” he said of the recent election. “It’s was very simply good people versus bad people.” Miller also makes another observation about Obama’s candidacy that shows him to be a member of the “one-man” school of historiography. “The right person has to have the right situation. But the right situation doesn’t create the right person.”
The high minded talk of the valley’s intellgentsia – and Millers’ a member in good standing – is usually reflected in how it conducts business. Make no mistake: there are practical aspects to all this enthusiasm. Silicon Valley has long been a cash register for the Democratic party but it’s leadership has often been happy to limit itself to that role: a dinner, a fundraiser and getting to drop the Leader of the Free World’s name in conversation. This time, they’re after bigger game.
Recently powerhouse venture capitalist John Doerr, suggested to his fellow Harvard Business alums that DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – be returned to its original purpose. Doerr’s idea was that DARPA, which created and fostered the initial growth of the Internet, could do something similar for “green” technology.
In other words, Doerr would like the U.S. government to get back in the business of incubating start-ups. They may well need the help. The credit crunch has hit many of these operations hard. When it comes to this new class of investment, there’s no such thing as “virtual.” Companies need to borrow money to finance construction and development of physical things.
Talk of the “green New Deal” that the Obama administration may create – public spending for the development and construction of clean energy source like turbine farms, solar panel displays – would amount to something of a bailout for firms like Doerr’s that have invested in these companies. So would the administration’s decision to lift federal funding bans on stem cell research. Both would funnel a river of money to high tech companies.
That’s not necessarily bad. But it’s different. And while many of those intimately involved in this volte face are going to insist that that they haven’t changed their outlooks or approach – the market is still the market, politics is still a dirty business, entrepreneurs are still marvels of independent thought and action – those of us who have watched politics for a long time know better.
The Bush administration outraged men in the valley like Miller who place a great premium on competence. Obama’s candidacy was able to capture their imagination and his intelligence gave them faith that he’d actually do a good job. But that still doesn’t mean the valley loves politics. “Politics has really become a means to its own ends,” says Miller. “I think most politicians are disgusting. I just thin of them as guys who’s primary mission in life it to get elected.”
That’s exactly right, of course. You can’t get anything done unless you’re in office. But what about the idea – one hardly original – that an involved electorate, voters who care, will elected better, more suitable politicians? Well, says Miller, perhaps. “I find it difficult to argue with that.”