Bring on the “Singularity”

Our usual rule when facing any long-term challenge is that you need to change the rules. If a big competitor’s about to bombard the place where you’re standing, move someplace else. If your economic model is becoming obsolete, find a new model. In the case of people living and working in Silicon Valley, the challenge is the rapid migration of tech jobs to low-cost countries, andthe opportunity is to embrace and consciously accelerate the rate of change. Silicon Valley can’t be the cheapest place to write software, but it may survive by being the nimblest.
In response to all the talk about offshoring engineering jobs and its impact on employment in Silicon Valley and other regions, the San Jose Mercury News ran an interesting set of stories recently on the growth of Bangalore, India, as tech companies send tech jobs there. The articles are well worth a read if you missed them.
What the Merc didn ‘t discuss was the long-term impact of offshoring on Silicon Valley tech companies. Although in the short term outsourcing definitely helps Valley companies grow, and it doesn’t seem to have cut tech employment levels so far, in the long term software companies risk being hollowed out and made irrelevant the same way that many PC hardware companies faded away as companies in Asia took over more and more elements of hardware development.
The answer isn’t protectionism; Silicon Valley depends on exports for much of its revenue and growth. But we also shouldn’t ignore the trends. No tech company anywhere in the “developed” world, let alone Silicon Valley, is going to win a cost battle over basic engineering.
But if we can find ways to create new uses for technology, new businesses and new solutions, faster than anyone else, then we think Silicon Valley will survive and prosper. Many cultures around the world are relatively conservative and resistant to change, which leads to employees who don’t take a lot of initiative. The Merc noted this about Bangalore, for example. To thrive in the future, Silicon Valley needs to encourage radical experimentation and even faster change. Current government policies that slow the deployment of wireless broadband and seek to protect the major content monopolies don’t defend jobs in the long term any more than import quotas in the late 1970s protected the auto industry.
There’s a lot of talk about “Singularity.” That’s the point in the future at which technological change happens so fast that the world is altered in fundamental ways people can’t anticipate today. We think the concept was best explained by Vernor Vinge, in an essay you can read here. Professor Vinge believes that if you extrapolate from today’s trends, the Singularity (it’s always capitalized) is a lot closer than you think.
The idea of the Singularity has been screwing up science fiction authors for about a decade now, because they have trouble extrapolating what the world will be like in 50 years, let alone 500. But in the rest of the world the idea doesn’t have much traction. There’s a lot of millennialist rhetoric associated with the idea that feels overblown (humans being transcended, etc), and some very prominent people see the Singularity as a grave threat. Maybe the whole thing’s just a bunch of nerdy intellectual wankery. There’s a pretty good pro and con discussion in Wikipedia here.
We’re now starting to believe that the right thing for Silicon Valley may be to consciously embrace the Singularity. Bring on the chaos, baby! The faster we can make the world change, the greater the chance we’ll be able to pay our mortgages.

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