Culture in the Valley


Great article by Virginia Postrel on what makes Silicon Valley successful.

Last night and early this morning I was contemplating this very question and concluded it was silver mines in Nevada. Silver begat railroads that enriched Leland Stanford who endowed Stanford University that had a hand in the genesis of HP, Intel, Sun, Cisco, Varian, and scads more.

Virginia sees it as “Resilience vs. Anticipation. The West is resilient and can roll with the shocks. The East copes through anticipation, the static planning that assumes perfect foresight.”

    Everybody has theories about what makes Silicon Valley special, and most of the theories are right: It’s the density, the competition, the constant chatter about business plans over tables at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto. It’s the universities, Stanford and Berkeley, world-class research institutions that nonetheless nurture the practical. It’s the money, the greatest concentration of venture capital the world has ever seen. It’s the diversity, the immigrants from everywhere, the best and most brilliant spilling out of Oracle’s food pavilions to eat burgers, curry, and sushi in the California sun.

IN HIS 1988 BOOK, SEARCHING FOR SAFETY, the late UC-Berkeley political scientist Aaron Wildavsky laid out two alternatives for dealing with risk: anticipation, the static planning that aspires to perfect foresight, and resilience, the dynamic response that relies on having many margins of adjustment: “Anticipation is a mode of control by a central mind; efforts are made to predict and prevent potential dangers before damage is done. Forbidding the sale of certain medical drugs is an anticipatory measure. Resilience is the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, learning to bounce back. An innovative biomedical industry that creates new drugs for new diseases is a resilient device. . . . Anticipation seeks to preserve stability: the less fluctuation, the better. Resilience accommodates variability; one may not do so well in good times but learn to persist in the bad.”

Here, then, is the basic difference between the valley and the Hub: Viewing the world as predictable and itself as the center of the universe, Boston has encouraged strategies of anticipation. People try to imagine everything that might go wrong and fix it in advance. But in Silicon Valley, there are no certainties. The future is open and subject to upheaval. Resilience is the strategy of choice. People do the best they can at the moment, deal with problems as they arise, and develop networks to help them out.

The positive side of anticipation is that it encourages imagination and deep thought, the stuff of intellectual life. And it is good at eliminating known risks. It can build confidence… But anticipation doesn’t work when the world changes rapidly, and in unexpected ways. It encourages two types of error: hubristic central planning and overcaution.

“On the East Coast,” says Mundy, “it;s the building of the thing that’s most important. And on the West Coast, the sharing of it is relatively more important. Getting things out to the light of day seems more important there.”

Nowadays it seems that every place wants to be like Silicon Valley—to discover its secrets and copy them. Here, then, is a secret that can be copied, even in places with lousy weather and stable ground: Don’t ask for answers in advance. Don’t try to create a life without surprises. Trust serendipity.


Posted by Jay Cross at March 3, 2003 11:29 PM | TrackBack
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