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Machine Design

Give me your tired, your poor, your arrogant

When I first began seriously writing about the electronics industry back in the 1980s, I met a number of technologists in the locale around San Jose, that has come to be known as Silicon Valley. As I got to know them better, I also picked up on an attitude some of them shared that surprised me. The thrust of it was that any idea originating outside of a 50-mile radius around San Jose couldn’t be any good. And that 50-mile circle seemed to be drawn with a sharp edge. To a few Silicon Valley technoids, even scientists and engineers in Los Angeles couldn’t possibly know anything.

I am not the only one who has detected this disdain for outsiders among some Silicon Valley techies. A Wall Street Journal reporter noticed the same thing during a recent presentation at Y Combinator, a conference in Cupertino, Calif., for wannabe entrepreneurs. A talk there by Balaji Srinivasan, cofounder of a genetics start-up called Counsyl, was inflammatory enough to result in a WSJ story titled, “Silicon Valley’s Arrogance.”

As reported by the Journal and other news outlets, Srinivasan proposed what he called “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit.” In a nutshell, he thinks the Valley should build an “opt-in society, outside the U. S., run by technology.” The implication is that Silicon Valley techies can run a society better than the rest of the country. “We need to run the experiment, to show what a society run by Silicon Valley looks like without affecting anyone who wants to live under the Paper Belt,” he’s reported to have said. (Paper Belt is his term for areas governed by conventional means such as the U. S. government.)

Apparently, conference attendees took this stuff in with complete seriousness. Too bad. To me, this kind of pompousness deserves public hooting.

Srinivasan isn’t the first to think some class of industrialists could devise a better society than uninitiated masses. Ayn Rand wrote a novel in the 1950s called Atlas Shrugged that floated much the same basic ideas. Its plot involves a U. S. run by a socialist-style government in which the best producers go on strike. They retreat to a mountain hideaway where they build their own free economy.

Rand’s ideas have been criticized over the years because they ignore a lot of what makes capitalist systems work, such as the ability of different factions to compromise, recent federal shutdowns not withstanding. And in Rand’s world, individuals created massive great inventions by themselves, rather than through a more real-world process involving other people.

In the same vein, Srinivasan seems to have some of the same blind spots as Rand. “Silicon Valley probably needs the rest of the nation more than the rest of the nation needs Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley’s money, its customers, and its legal and technological foundations are all made possible by institutions that belong to the paper belt,” says the WSJ.

Fortunately, the concept that a few techies know more about running a society than the rest of us seems to be a minority view. But don’t expect those who sit in this camp to suddenly get more humble. Their conceitedness has been a long time in the making.

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