Friday, February 13, 2015

Bay Area Reinvention And Risk For History's Next Long Boom

Peter Leyden from Reinventors spoke today at the Commonwealth Club about how the San Francisco Bay Area is the origin of the next wave of multifaceted rejuvenation that's about to sweep the planet.  It's a good sales pitch that makes me want to dive deeper into a lot of what drives this area's economic and cultural vigor.

It's easy to point to San Francisco's lifestyle diversity and the high valuations of our tech companies.  Those are always highly visible because people with lots of money continually promote those things.  It's harder to see what truly enables the area's innovative spirit.  Mr. Leyden is correct to identify the region's cultural diversity as an enabler for collaboration and sharing ideas.  I would also identify the region's strong research laboratories at Stanford and UC Berkeley, its record high density of advanced academic degrees per square mile, and history of strong government funding for technology development.  Money flows to places where it gets the most work done.

We should also ask why the Silicon Valley ecosystem is replicated in other parts of the US like Boston-Cambridge and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, but not in other countries.  The key is the strength of the rule of law in the US.  We lose some of that strength with every forced automobile bailout and mandatory health insurance plan.

Mr. Leyden liked to note several bonanza periods in American history as precursors for the next "long boom" the Bay Area is supposed to lead.  Okay, but let's remember that world history always moves in cycles and sometimes major socioeconomic disruptions force progress off its tracks.  Nothing in history moves in a linear fashion.  Wars, pandemics, and forced migrations often appear when long economic booms run out of steam.

Acknowledging generational differences was one notable part of Mr. Leyden's talk that I found encouraging.  I don't know whether he's read Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning but some of his discussion covered intergenerational psychology.  I had to leave his talk early due to a schedule conflict, so perhaps he has elaborated on generational cycles elsewhere in his body of work.  Analysts who are serious about generational interaction acknowledge the recurrence of crisis periods that destroy progress and force drastic social changes.

I would not go down the path of trumpeting Bay Area tech leadership based on the valuations of a select group of publicly traded tech companies.  The insane valuations of Twitter, Facebook, and Tesla Motors are probably fleeting.  They have more to do with the Federal Reserve's monetary stimulus than any added value they offer.  The same goes for the putative valuations of Uber and Airbnb; their freelance contractors are in for a rude awakening once they start paying for the insurance they'll have to carry.  Building a valuation based on outsourcing all costs and liabilities is a free lunch that eventually turns into a banquet of consequences.

I also would not go down the path of touting Moore's Law as a predictor of unlimited capacity growth in everything forever.  The most serious minds in the enterprise computing sector have been debating the potential end of Moore's Law for years.  Any advance in quantum computing that will put power laws back on track for unlimited growth has still not jumped from laboratories to real products.  Waiting for another Moore's Law in other sectors very dependent on material science, such as electric battery storage capacity, requires a similar quantum advance.  Bring on those quantum dots and nanoscale manufacturers, because we need them to manifest ASAP.

I like hearing tech evangelists go on cheerleading benders for the Bay Area.  I do it myself once in a while.  Nobody does it better than the Global Business Network (GBN).  They just need to acknowledge severe risks given humanity's penchant for messing things up.  The difference between me and other local gurus is that I study a lot more of the downside than anyone else.  I drink from a half-empty glass, fed by San Francisco's tasty Hetch Hetchy water system.