How bleak is our valley

The_Lucky_Country

Graeme Philipson

May 15, 2007

I write this column from Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley. That term describes the collection of small cities straddling the San Andreas fault, south of San Francisco.

The name was coined by US journalist Don Hoefler in 1971. Locals call it “The Valley”. When I first came here nearly 30 years ago, I was very excited. I had visions of some sort of technological utopia, a land where computer dreams came true and you could pick up microchips off the street.

Somehow I thought it would be something special. I was sadly disappointed. Special things do happen in Silicon Valley, but the place itself looks like anywhere else in urban America.

That means it’s a collection of shopping malls, corporate parks, warehouses, fast-food joints and the like, all criss-crossed with freeways.

Lots of people live in the Valley, although you won’t ever see their houses while driving around. They are hidden by high walls.

At the southern end of Silicon Valley is the city of San Jose, some way down Highway 101 from San Francisco’s dreary southern suburbs. That is one of the most congested and least attractive stretches of freeway in North America, which is saying something.

Silicon Valley is a boring-looking and overcrowded place. Its appearance hardly measures up to its worldwide reputation as the birthplace of the computer revolution.

So much for the complaining. Never let it be said that I’m anti-American. I married an American, and my son carries a US passport. My real complaint is not with Silicon Valley’s ugly appearance and unattractive highways, but with my own country.

Why is there no Silicon Valley in Australia? It’s not just the scale of the US. There are other factors.

Nondescript though they may be, the cities and towns that form Silicon Valley house many of the most interesting and innovative companies in the IT industry. The area has lost none of its allure, and it remains the Mecca of tech hopefuls around the world.

They are drawn by companies such as Yahoo and Google. They are drawn by Hewlett-Packard and Oracle and Apple and Sun, and by small hardware and software start-ups in their hundreds.

They are drawn by the world class research facilities, such as Xerox’s famous Palo Alto Research Centre, and IBM’s Santa Theresa labs, and by Stanford University. They are drawn by the analysts and consultancies and PR and market research companies that thrive on all this stuff.

If you want to get into films, you go to Hollywood. Advertising: New York. If you want to get into computers, you go to Silicon Valley.

The Valley has made millionaires of thousands of people. The first were Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who gave their names to what has become the world’s largest IT company. (Did you know HP is now bigger than IBM?)

Silicon Valley spawned Apple Computer, through which Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak rewrote the American dream. It spawned Sun Microsystems, which continues to prove that “the network is the computer”. (Sun, by the way, was originally an acronym for Stanford University Network).

We only hear about the successes, and some of the more spectacular failures. For every winner, there are a dozen losers. Small companies we have never heard of regularly disappear into oblivion, taking with them the hopes and dreams of thousands of intelligent individuals.

At least for a while. People in Silicon Valley know that not every good idea will translate into money. The philosophy is to keep trying until one does. And those who do succeed tend not to stop there; they get up and do it all again.

One of the driving forces behind Silicon Valley has been the willingness of these people to have a go, and the willingness of others to give them a go. There is no shortage of angel investors and venture capitalists who will take a punt on a good idea.

Try to do that in Australia: the clever country, the land of the fair go. Bankers and financiers here want to see bricks and mortar, or a warehouse full of stock, before they’ll lend you money.

They simply don’t understand, as the Americans have for years, that assets in the information age are very different from those of the previous era. Australian banks are still coming to terms with the industrial revolution, which ended some time ago.

That is why there is no Silicon Valley in Australia. Our country is littered with the corpses of companies that tried and failed to do what hundreds of companies in Mountain View and Sunnyvale and Menlo Park have done.

Some Australian companies have succeeded, such as Mincom and NetComm and Software Developments. But many more have failed, sometimes through bad management or bad luck, but more often because of a troglodytic investment climate, small-minded bankers who are happy to gamble on the promise of real estate development but who lack the foresight and intelligence to understand how the centre of balance in the economy has moved from physical objects to information.

Information is an asset, as we all know. But it is a very different type of asset than coal or buildings or iron ore or wheat. The difference is that information can be infinitely reproduced, which means its value lies not in its generation but in its propagation.

They’ve known that for two generations in Silicon Valley. But governments in Australia, and the gnomes of Collins Street and Martin Place, are still stuck in an industrial era, antediluvian mindset.

And now it’s too late.

***

Dear Graeme,

Your well titled and refreshing, important, more – necessary – article ‘How bleak is our valley’ in yesterday’s Herald lays the responsibility for what you wrote about at the feet of troglodytes who run the banks.

In The Lucky Country Horne, delicately positioning his argument between the denial of the existence of a capitalist class and the avoidance of the depth and extent of ugliness in his subject, referred to Australia’s ‘troglodyte past’. Like you, he held responsible ‘men in power’.

Peter Conrad, in his Boyer lectures a few years ago, most academic and weak, while acknowledging a provincial past, argued that Australian culture has, as it were, ‘moved into the modern era’.

Shelley Gare’s ‘the Triumph of the Airheads’ details the impact of consumerism and capitalist ‘movers and shakers’ on primarily urban Australian society.

But these men in power, these ‘small-minded’ bankers of whom you write also exist in other cultures. And Howard himself is not an aberration, an excrescence. As Judith Brett correctly argued, he not only understands this culture at a gut level, he has risen from and plays the ‘middle’ – like a Paganini.

Short of socialist revolution, it is Australian culture itself that needs to be taken by the throat and exposed, analysed and acted on for Australians to begin systematically addressing the failure you deplore.

The dominant Anglo-Saxon based culture in this country has at its heart the poison of shame – and therefore the need to shame. It has at its heart a feeling of inferiority, reflected in an astonishingly subtle servility to the dominant world power (the shifts in the pronunciation of ‘Iraq’ by Australians since the first Gulf War – notably those in the media – replicating that of Bush, not as Iraqis or Arabs pronounce it – and as all Australians used to pronounce it, is a study in how servile this culture is) while displaying a bullying arrogance in the region.

The clearest manifestation of this disease, ‘for all the world to see’, was during the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games when the packed stadium sang as a hymn, by ‘candlelight’, and repeatedly, Australia’s de facto national anthem (with its reference to prostitution – ‘waltzing Matilda’ – and possibly the first example of product placement – for Billy Tea), ‘celebrating’ (?!) the suicide of a failed petty thief as he ran from authority.

Compare this song with ‘John Brown’s Body’ and the events on which it was based. Or with another de facto national anthem – ‘Flower of Scotland’ – which, even though it refers to an eventual military defeat, is about a people who stood, and won, against a far stronger power. And of those Australians who know or sense this ‘cringe’ in ‘Waltzing Matilda’ – it fuels their meanness.

This culture that prides itself on its capacity to ‘celebrate’ has at its heart the celebration of loss, failure and defeat – from that of Leichhardt to Burke and Wills to Ned Kelly to Breaker Morant to Waltzing Matilda to Dad and Dave, to the letters in the first capitalist world war over the re-division of areas of exploitation from Private Jones at Gallipoli to his mother, to Lasseter to Les Darcy to Phar Lap to Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House to Australian Story… Noble all, in the face of loss, failure and defeat.

And of the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome: it is not that one thinks one stands above another, that one ‘looks down’ on them, it is that that other and at some level knowingly, perceiving any degree of the potential or vision of which you write, on their knees inevitably reacts – as they look up. It was not merely the Minister for Public Works who drove Utzon from these shores, it was the clash of an authoritarian culture which profoundly values ‘the ordinary,’ with a man who lived for intellectual vision.

This country continues to be, overall, an intellectually sleepy ‘paradise’, riding on the broad back of assorted resources as it clings to the coat-tails of Uncle Sam, while still clutching at the skirts of Mother Britannia – rather than, as Horne pointed out, showing responsibility and independence  – with all that those concepts entail.

When Moses strode down from Kosciuszko, he bore two weighty tablets on his hips. On one were the words which are the underbelly of Australian egalitarianism: ‘Thus Far and No Further’ – ‘sympathy for the underdog’, until the second the underdog shows even a hint of rising (during the Sydney Olympics, in the superbly titled and watched by record audiences ‘The Dream’ of H.G. Nelson and Roy Slaven, Doyle said ‘If it rises above a blade of grass, cut it down.’).

This divine rule was riveted in place by the other cultural imperative on the second tablet: ‘(As Ye Worketh Record Hours Per Week, to Consume) Thou Shalt be Laid Back’ – implicitly, ‘Thou shalt not dream’, ‘Thou shalt not be passionate for intellectual vision’, which passion is clear in your article.

Passion for dreams not motivated by consumption, for intellectual excellence that goes beyond dotted ‘i’s, crossed ‘t’s and referencing to the hilt, that truly takes one’s society forward, has at the least the same effect in Australian culture, far more often than not, as do the headlights of a ute bearing down on a rabbit in the middle of a dusty road, and at worst, the triggering of a retributive antipathy.

Fools see it, correctly, as a threat, a disturbance to their paradise, to their myopia, to their littleness – ‘If I even acknowledge let alone praise you for your dreams, for your commitment to vision – particularly intellectual – the pressure is immediately on me to face my shame, my ‘inferiority’, my spiritual apathy, and to dream and aspire beyond my narrow bounds of consumption and certainty. Too much.’

Art colleges are filled with ambitious young, eager to produce something ‘edgy.’ They should sit in any mall on the week-end and watch and learn as the couples pass, pushing their trolleys. In those trolleys, packed full of consumables, sits their child or sit their children, clinging to the bars and looking out at the world. Now that’s edgy, and without the parents even aware of it…

Culture is not the sum total of a people’s achievements, it is the attitude in a society to what is not known, to what has not been achieved. It is a basis in the present not of the past but for the future.

Congratulations on your article. May it stimulate responses and may there be many more such on this and other areas.

Philip Stanfield

red-star

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