The triumph of the PostIts

Sitting on the train this morning reading this week’s Economist briefing on Silicon Valley made me think one thing above all else. If the techno-utopian vision of a virtual, Artificial Intelligence world is so close, why the heck is so much of the world of technology development focused in such a small and relatively remote (certainly timezone-wise) part of the world? Surely if the promise of Silicon Valley were real, then Silicon Valley wouldn’t actually exist? Does the existence Silicon Valley actually refute its own hype?

Quite possibly.

The thing is, for all the hype about how software is eating the world, the people who spout such crap seem to be heavily influenced by the circle of resources and people that orbit around Cupertino, Mountain View and the other iconic places. Similarly in the UK we have Silicons Glen, Fen and Roundabout (and the surely in need of a rebrand “M4 Corridor”). People being in the same physical space as other people is as, if not more, important than ever before. The Economies of Agglomeration exist in the real world and don’t in the virtual.

Moreover, go into the average agile tech startup and you’re likely to be confronted by the artefacts of in-person working with PostIt Notes covering every available flat wallspace. The icons of 21st Century software development are carved from pen and marginally sticky paper.

As I recently argued, much of the technology that is being provided by these companies that congregate in terribly small parts of the globe to allow the rest of us to work in more flexible ways probably misses the point, digitising the stuff that is of low value and tossing out the stuff that is really valuable – the bonding, the side conversations, the chance encounters and the serendipity. You get all of those from putting people into spaces together. You remove most of that by making things virtual.

The tech myths pushed out by the people who congregate closely together, though, are easily bought by folk looking to protect bottom line by squeezing costs. Offices vs home workers? That’s easy on the balance sheet. Without being able to place a value on the soft stuff, the soft stuff loses out. And by its nature, the soft stuff is difficult, if not impossible to quantify. But if it wasn’t really, really important, Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist where it does.

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