Freedom for Silicon Valley! Freedom From Silicon Valley!

Reading Gawker's Silicon Valley / Silicon Alley gossip blog ValleyWag is one of my favourite diversions from reading research about Silicon Valley / Silicon Alley. There isn't enough critical thought about its growing bubble economy and its brogrammer environment. A talk (non-TED, thankfully) by a Stanford lecturer about how The Valley must get around government restrictions and red tape is emblematic of this lack of critical thought and reflection. Entrepreneur / lecturer Balaji Srinivasan called for the need to build "opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology."

I'll admit that I wasn't in the talk (I'm in sunny, warm Edinburgh), but it strikes me that this kind of thought is part of a larger techno-libertarianism that's been a popular feature of the technology industry since the very start. This viewpoint generally sees new technology and innovation as an unalloyed good and anything that gets in the way of new technology (skeptical investors, government regulators, liberal arts majors,  Underwriters Labs) as a barrier at best and an evil at worst. The increasing fetishization of Disruption With a Capital D, especially for disrupting urban life through things like Uber (the car sharing / unregulated taxi business) or AirBnB (the room sharing / cheep hotel service) is a major component of this.

But this movement is largely ahistorical. The desire for Silicon Valley to secede from government regulations is ahistorical, ignoring the critical role of the US government in the creation of Silicon Valley. One of the best histories of this traces the development of Silicon Valley to the establishment of military bases in the 1910s. Even if we don't go back that far, the emergence of the original transistor economy in the region wouldn't have existed without federal support of the original research and as one of the main buyers. Today, 83% of Stanford's research budget comes from public sources.

Utopianism is important: it allows us to envision a better world and then (rarely) take steps to create that world. But utopias are literal (well, figurative) no-places. They cannot be real. There will never be a entrepreneurial ecosystem or innovation hub that exists outside the presence of public investment in education, research or infrastructure and without government procurement. Yes, that means there will never be a (successful, non-norovirus infected) floating tech utopia or Reddit Island.