How to kill a golden age

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So I was sitting in the Theatre of Salt in Florence with my friend Jo discussing golden ages, as one inevitably does when in Florence — it having been the birthplace of that most famous and most consequential of all golden ages, the Renaissance — and I found myself speculating that Silicon Valley’s own ongoing golden age is at real risk of ending soon.

I don’t think anyone would dispute that the last several decades have been a golden age. First Intel and Hewlett-Packard, then Apple and Cisco, then Alphabet and Facebook, as silicon and networks and software ate the world. Today three of the world’s five largest publicly traded companies are headquartered within ten miles of Mountain View, and the other two are in the Valley’s symbiotic satellite Seattle.

It is now widely taken for granted that this golden age will go on, that this ecosystem of startups and giants, and startups becoming giants, and giants acquiring startups, has become an unstoppable flywheel. But I wonder. There is a history of golden ages achieving what seems like an apotheosis, and then just — stopping. The Renaissance spread like wildfire through the rest of Europe, but in Italy, the wave crested with Michelangelo … and then it broke.

Consider Hollywood’s golden age of the 1970s. (I’ve pointed out the many parallels between Hollywood and Silicon Valley before; startups as movies, business plans as scripts, founders as directors, VCs as producers, acquiring companies as studios, etc.) That was the era in which William Goldman famously explained that “nobody knows anything” about box office success. And so they tried everything, and gave us Coppola and Lucas and Scorsese and Spielberg, and everything from Annie Hall and Badlands and Chinatown and Dog Day Afternoon and The Exorcist to, God help us, Zardoz, plus a thousand terrible movies that no one remembers any more.

…But then Hollywood began to figure out what consistently brought in the most money. Three-act structures. Action movies. Rom-coms. Animation. Superheroes. Sequels. And the age of heavily funded experimentation, of studio avant-garde, of pushing the envelope of what’s possible, rather than relying on what’s tried and tested and known to be lucrative, came to an end. (It still happens, sure. But it’s no longer the standard modus operandi.)

Jo suggested that there are three things golden ages require. One: an ecosystem big enough to include both a handful of superstars and a horde of talented craftspeople. Two: a culture of mixed sharing and competition, of mutual iteration, of openly seeking out and absorbing and building on one another’s work. These are both things the Valley has in spades, and things which are very hard to reproduce by fiat elsewhere, which is why “next Silicon Valley” attempts almost always fail, and why non-compete clauses are an immediate fatal deathblow to such aspirations.

The third necessary ingredient, though, is the most interesting. She holds that golden ages only happen when they include people outside of the mainstream, people with new ideas and different backgrounds, people who wouldn’t ordinarily get funding. These are the people who do new things, who make qualitative rather than quantitative leaps.

This inclusion can happen because the money funding the era comes from somewhat disreputable sources, and the establishment turns up their nose at it, as with the Renaissance. Or because nobody knows what success even looks like and is so desperate that they’ll fund any talented lunatic, a la Hollywood. Or because the field itself is seen as somewhat disreputable, something for nerds and geeks to take care of the establishment tends to the more important matters of law and finance and steel and cars and oil. This was once the case with the Valley.

But no longer. Today we are the establishment. (Again: world’s five most valuable companies.) And, as I’ve written before, the people who would have been investment bankers or GE executives have flooded in to join this new establishment, and to homogenize it. “The establishment scions pouring into tech take on the trappings of subversion, while remaining fundamentally conformist” — and much less interested in funding talented nonconformists.

Put simply: as the Valley becomes the Establishment, it also becomes more sclerotic, more reluctant to experiment, more reluctant to try weird new things and take risks, and more prone to giving more money to the same kinds of people to do the same kinds of things. That isn’t what happens in a Golden Age. That’s at best consolidation, and at worst stagnation.

Fortunately there is a straightforward solution to this problem: redouble our focus on finding, funding, and supporting companies built by people who aren’t establishment scions. Conveniently, he said sardonically, the tech industry and the establishment both have a long history of unfairly excluding whole swathes of the population — women, Black people, and Latino people, to cite three — so the best way to perpetuate our golden age is also the simplest. All we need to do is begin to include the people we haven’t included before.

Of course that may not be enough. Golden ages are often ended by political violence. Historians connect the end of the Renaissance to the sack of Rome in 1527, the end of the Islamic Golden Age to the sack of Baghdad in 1258, the end of the Belle Époque to the outbreak of World War I. I’m not saying Cupertino is at risk of being sacked anytime soon, but it seems clear, moreso with every passing year, that politics and even political violence might endanger our golden age as well. Let’s include new voices, not least (although not only) because our ecosystem needs them; and let’s keep an eye on those gathering wisps of storm clouds on the horizon, lest we wrongly pretend they’re nothing until it’s too late.