Friday, March 22, 2002

The Cyber Scene in Silicon Valley ~ by Renee Bakos

"At the peak of the Internet frenzy two years ago, when the Nasdaq was over 5,000 and dotcom millionaires were buying spreads in the hills above Palo Alto, it seemed that the information revolution would go on forever. Then the bubble burst…..How fast can the information technology economy come back? I don't know. The economy is quiet now, gestating a new phase. What I do know is that when that new phase comes forth, it will be a giant." (W. Brian Arthur, "Is the Information Revolution Dead?" Business 2.0, March 2002

W.B. Arthur's article on a future information revolution is such an exemplary piece of analysis, that it gave birth to a pivotal debate, broadcast live in Silicon Valley this week. "Is the Information Revolution Dead?" presented by Business 2.0, in association with the Commonwealth Club Silicon Valley and the Tech Museum of Innovation, starred some of Silicon Valley's most controversial powerbrokers:

W. Brian Arthur (professor, Santa Fe Institute, Citibank)

Andy Grove, (chairman, Intel)

Lawrence Lessig (professor, Stanford Law School)

Ned Desmond, (editor and president, Business 2.0)

The high voltage of a professional debate is awesome, especially if the stage is set in a glowing "azure state of the-art IMAX® Dome" Theater at the Tech Museum of innovation. ( Imagine a sold-out-standing-room-only event with 300 people in large reclining chairs, dwarfed by a giant eight story domed screen, with six-channel, digital wrap around sound. (That's 13,000 watts of power coming from 44 speakers.) The invite never mentioned we would be sitting 'inside' the next tech revolution.

However, Arthur's vision of the next technology revolution may only be theoretical, as it compares the Internet collapse to the railway mania that raged in 1847, crashed, and then gave way to the great railway revolution in Britain in 1850. Arthur points out that, "Railways, like the Internet, are connection technologies. For connection technologies, this brings on a race for space. And this in turn means that when the opportunities open up... The result can easily be investment frenzy -- a mania. With or without manias, all revolutions still progress from early chaotic innovation to build-out and then to tired overcapacity and foreign competition."

First, Arthur's article is a knockout piece and a must read for anyone who scoffs at the thought of the next technology revolution: it's bold, insightful and historically grounded.

But there's a skeptic or every crowd.

"So what?" retorted legendary Andy Grove, who threw out the first challenge to the digital future, noting that the "global" of yore was confined to England and some parts of Europe. Growth is now "world-wide," and still the action is happening outside the U.S. rather than here. The technology revolution, once again, is in Europe.

Then there's the lawyer who flies in from left field. Lawrence Lessig volleyed that the "bigger" problem is the dinosaurs, referring to people who see the Internet's progression as a threat of extinction. The dinosaurs can use Intellectual Property rights as a way to stop the mammals from evolving, and begs the question, "Was the information revolution murdered?"

Lest we forget the raging battle between Napster vs. the Dinosaurs of Hollywood, Lessig points to capitalism's golden rule: If an industry stands to lose money in the face of a burgeoning technology, erect roadblocks. Couple the 'dino resistance' with the lack of broadband and any new technology will come to a grinding halt.

Not so fast, Mr. Lessig. "You forget the consumer rebellion factor," countered Grove.

With that, the debate quickly turned into a techie's tennis match, as Lessig lobbed a hardball at Grove, "Try to name a consumer rebellion that succeeded." Furthermore, he noted the average Napster consumer is a pony-tailed teenager that does not have the right to vote, and even Visa can't buy off the politicians who pass the laws.

Grove, who obviously wasn't ready for even a small-scale attack, spiked a come back ten minutes later, after pondering why he didn't become a lawyer instead of a CEO. (Oh, yeah, the money!) Citing the consumer rebellion against Detroit, "that propelled foreign cars to come into the U.S market - largely due to unhappy customers," Grove tried to contain his glee.

At match point, Lessig retorted, "But when they rebelled they weren't called criminals and thieves with ponytails!"

With all the fast serves, it was hard to decide who would win: the economics professor, the board chairman, or the lawyer. (Note: Ned Desmond did not issue an opinion. He is after all, a professional journalist.)

True to form, Grove scored the final point, "Do you know the game "Bring me a rock? The boss says, go over to that river, and bring me that rock. So you go over to the river and bring the rock. But then the boss says, "No not THAT rock. Bring me that other rock." Grove leaned into the audience for the punch line, "Some members of the Entertainment industry are playing Bring me a Rock." You could almost see a glassy-eyed, "Huh?" pass over Lessig's face. Nothing like throwing in a proverbial twist to the argument to throw your opponent off-course. Or the audience. We were all relieved when Grove tied it together for us:

"The U.S. economy keeps us competitive and sharp," explained Grove, "Innovation keeps us (the U.S.) alive." So the question arises: Will high tech simply go abroad to end the rock game? "There is nothing remarkable about the U.S., Grove points out, "but our ability to innovate." With that, Grove basked in the audience's resounding applause.

As the evening concluded, the audience milled around Silicon Valley's royalty and flashed their digitals, with the exuberance of the Oscars. Four distinguished men stood shoulder-to-shoulder onstage, silhouetted against an eight story domed screen, with a megawatt symphony filling the azure globe; like a future vision of a new-found Mount Rushmore waiting to emerge from the digital twilight.